Israel’s cross-border clash with Iranian and Syrian forces on Saturday was a sharp escalation of long-brewing hostilities along its northern frontier — and a bracing alert to those who have focused on other areas of the Syrian civil war, on other aspects of Iran’s strategic assertiveness, or who believed that Israel’s air superiority left it invincible in its own skies.
In the space of several hours, Israel downed what it said was an Iranian drone that had penetrated its airspace, then struck back at what it called the command-and-control center in Syria from which Iran launched the drone. An Israeli F-16, returning from the attack, crashed in northern Israel after coming under heavy Syrian antiaircraft fire — the first Israeli jet downed under enemy fire in decades.
Israel responded with strikes against eight Syrian and four Iranian targets in Syrian territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the day’s events as proof of Israel’s resolve. “Yesterday we dealt severe blows to the Iranian and Syrian forces,” he said Sunday. “We made it unequivocally clear to everyone that our rules of action have not changed one bit. We will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us.”
But strategists and military analysts in Israel did not see things quite so simply. As both sides sift through the debris, here are some important points:
This isn’t over. It’s just beginning.
As the Syrian civil war winds down, a new conflict is emerging among Iran, which appears to want a lasting Syrian base to threaten Israel; Israel, which is determined to prevent this; and the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, which showed renewed confidence in firing on Israel’s warplanes.
“We are seeing a renegotiation of the rules of the game with regard to the kind of military activity that each side tolerates in the other,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at International Crisis Group. “We will see more and more friction between the parties, given that we are seeing more and more this sense that Assad has the upper hand” against Syrian rebels.
Neither side can be expected to back down.
Israel believes it is vital to stop Iran, Hezbollah or other Shiite militias from threatening it with precision rockets from faraway corners of Syria, or with artillery and troops just beyond the disputed Golan Heights.
And Iran does not want its investment in rescuing Mr. Assad to have been for naught, and to have to bring its forces home, said Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council. “If Iran would move back to its bases, then Assad will have gotten what he wanted, the Russians will have gotten what they wanted — but what about them?”
Israel alone can’t stop Iran in Syria.
Israel has stopped neighboring countries from building nuclear facilities, but it has never tried to stop one from building up a conventional force, Mr. Eiland said. And it is unlikely, on its own, to succeed, even if it manages to slow down Iran’s efforts.
What Israel can do, Mr. Eiland said, is punish the Assad government for Iran’s buildup.
“We destroyed some Syrian targets, and that might create some tension between Bashar Assad and the Iranians,” Mr. Eiland said. “Assad is not interested in the Iranian presence; he just cannot say no to it. But if he and his regime are paying more of a price, maybe he can ask Iran to stop, or lean on the Russians to help.”
With the Trump administration looking to reopen the nuclear deal with Iran, Mr. Eiland said, Israel could try to bring its own security concerns into the mix of a new negotiation.
“The Americans and Europeans want to prevent Iranian long-range missiles from reaching Europe,” he said. “But from the Israeli point of view, Iran already has missiles that can cover Israel, so that’s much less important than Iran’s presence in Syria.”
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