News analysis

A misstep in Israel-Iran conflict can have dire consequences

Iran and Israel have been waging a shadow war for years. Now, these tensions have come out into the open. Could the arch enemies in the Middle East stumble into outright war?

A giant ball of fire raced through the dark night sky before a mighty explosion shook the hills of Galilee in Israel's north on Saturday morning. The flaming object was an Israeli F-16I fighter jet, apparently shot down by Syrian air defences during a bombing raid deep inside its territory. The conflagration occurred just days after Israel's Cabinet symbolically held its weekly meeting in Israel's north, meant as a warning sign to the Lebanese Hizbollah militia and its patrons, Syria and Iran, not to provoke tensions in the region.

Israeli politicians have been warning for weeks about the potential for an outbreak of violence. They expressed concerns about Iran's intensifying efforts to provide Hizbollah with precision missiles that could hit targets in Israel, and about an ever-increasing military Iranian presence in Syria just across the border from Israel.

The latest chain of events began on Saturday at around 4am, when air raid sirens roused Israelis in the north from their sleep. An Iranian drone had entered Israeli airspace from Syria. It was promptly downed by a helicopter gunship, and the drone parts are now being analysed by Israeli intelligence.

Shortly afterwards, a formation of four Israeli F-16Is scrambled to attack the Iranian command post that had controlled the stealth drone from deep inside Syria. On their way, the jets encountered dozens of air defence missiles, some of which fell on Israeli territory. One missile hit its target, and the fighter plane crashed in Israel's north. The two pilots managed to eject over Israeli territory, with one hurt critically.

The incident was the first since 1982 of an Israeli jet being downed by Syria.

In response, Israel decided to retaliate with the largest strike against Syrian air defences in decades, and also against four "Iranian targets". Twelve targets were hit in total in Syria, with reports saying six people were killed, among them possibly Iranian soldiers or advisers. In Israel, air raid sirens sounded again and again. The airspace north of Tel Aviv was closed to civilian traffic, while several flights to the country's main international airport were delayed.

 

Iran, which vows to annihilate Israel, has armed the Lebanese Hizbollah with more than 100,000 rockets for this purpose, and also provided the radical Palestinian Hamas group with weapons, money and logistic support.

Israel has not been idle, either. Most pronounced have been its attempts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear programme, which it fears is aimed at Israel's destruction.

The civil war in Syria has moved this war from the shadows to the centre stage. After deploying thousands of troops, supplying an endless number of weapons and extending billions in credit to Syria, Iran seeks a strategic return on its massive investment in President Bashar al-Assad's political survival. It is using Syria as a hub for extending Hizbollah's weapons cache, sending ever more sophisticated arms to neutralise Israel's strategic advantage.

To prevent this, Israel's air force has struck more than 100 times in Syria in recent years, according to its own statements, targeting arms shipments headed to Lebanon or arms storage sites. Just last week, Israeli jets attacked a notorious Syrian military research site for the second time in months.

Mostly, Syria did not respond to these incursions. Mr Assad did not want to open a front against Israel's high-tech army while fighting for his own survival. But the Assad regime has scored several strategic victories over the Syrian opposition with the help of his allies, primarily Iran and Russia. Now, Damascus and Teheran want to change the rules of the game to their advantage.

In a rare interview with Arab media, Israel's army spokesman warned of Iran's efforts to build arms factories for Hizbollah in Lebanon, stating that in the case of conflict, these factories could turn Lebanese villages into legitimate targets. All the while, Syria has increased its air defences and employed them against Israeli aircraft, and Iran is stationing more and more troops inside the country. Now, it has sent a drone on a reconnaissance mission into Israeli airspace, said the spokesman.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed he will not allow Iran to gain another military foothold right on Israel's border. On a recent trip to Moscow, he asked Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is Mr Assad's most important patron and also heavily invested in the country's civil war, to intervene on Israel's behalf. Yet, Mr Putin seems reluctant to confront Iran, his ally in Syria.

Neither Israel nor Hizbollah or Iran have at this juncture an interest in all-out war. But as long as the United States and Russia seem unwilling or unable to play mediator, the war of proxies between Israel and Iran is slowly evolving into a direct confrontation in which every misstep can have dire consequences.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2018, with the headline 'A misstep in Israel-Iran conflict can have dire consequences'. Print Edition | Subscribe