Iran and Israel are on a collision course over Tehran’s expanding footprint in Syria, raising the odds of a direct clash between the region’s two military heavyweights that could quickly draw in other combatants.
With Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Iran’s most potent military ally, emboldened by their success in upholding Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israel is growing more and more wary of being attacked by missiles not just from southern Lebanon but also from inside Syria.
Israel has been sporadically bombing Hezbollah positions in Syria for the past three years. But the situation reached new heights this month when what Israel said was an Iranian armed stealth drone was intercepted and downed over Israel and an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was in turn shot down by anti-aircraft fire from inside Syria during a retaliatory airstrike.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif traded belligerent taunts at a major security conference in Munich this week, with the hard-line Mr. Netanyahu brandishing a piece of the downed drone and warning that Tehran “should not test Israel’s resolve.”
“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”
Mr. Zarif mocked the tough words and noted the Israeli leader’s political problems at home. Calling Mr. Netanyahu’s presentation a “cartoonish circus,” the Iranian minister said the downing of the Israeli fighter jet had crumbled Israel’s “invincibility.”
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Hezbollah, which the U.S. has listed as “foreign terrorist organization” since the late 1990s, said in a statement after the downing of the Israeli F-16 that the struggle had reached a “new strategic phase” aimed at curtailing Israeli’s incursions into Syria.
With Mr. Assad’s government, backed by Russian and Iranian military muscle moving ever closer to victory in the Syrian civil war, Israeli planners also warn that Iran and Hezbollah are trying to shape the strategic landscape to their advantage.
“In the northern arena, there is a change coming due to the strategic developments in the Syrian internal fighting. The Iranians and Hezbollah, who are backing [Mr. Assad], are getting freed up to start building their power,” Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, head of Israeli Defense Forces operations, told Israeli Army Radio this week, adding that the prospect of a war with Iran this year was higher than it had been in a long time.
Richard C. Baffa, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp., said recent events underscored “the fragility of the situation and how easily miscalculation could lead to rapid escalation.”
Mr. Baffa said in an interview that neither side seeks an escalation, but he sees signs that if a war does break out, it will be much larger than the border clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
Hezbollah is able to maintain a “broader northern front that includes Syria,” he said, and the group “has far more missiles and rockets that can target Israeli infrastructure and population centers.”
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At the same time, he said, the perception that Hezbollah won in 2006 by “not losing” points to the “fact that the Israelis will see the need for a decisive win” should things escalate.
Israeli officials fear Iran will demand a permanent presence inside Syria, the price it will exact for its efforts in support of Mr. Assad.
“Iran is determined to build a military presence and military capabilities in Syria the way they built Hezbollah in Lebanon for many, many years,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate.
Mr. Yadlin, who spoke on a conference call hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Wednesday, said further escalation would pit Israeli forces against an Iran-backed alliance that may even include elements of the Syrian military.
Mr. Yadlin, who currently heads the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who played the critical role in preventing the recent clash from exploding into an all-out war.
The situation was “on the way to a huge escalation, and then came the telephone from President Putin,” he said. “President Putin has a unique position in the Middle East, not only in Syria. He is the only one who can pick up the phone to everybody — to each pair of enemies: the Saudis and the Iranians, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Kurds and the Turks, and in this case, the Israelis, the Syrians and the Iranians.”
While this time the confrontation “was basically contained,” Mr. Yadlin said, “I am not sure it is going to be contained next time.”
But wariness over Moscow’s mounting influence in the region is widespread.
Three days before the Feb. 10 incident, the International Crisis Group warned in a report that the “rules of the game that contained Israeli-Hezbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded” and said Russia may be in a unique position to restore them.
“Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering” of the agreement with Syria and Iran last year meant to keep Iranian-backed forces inside Syria from getting too close to the Israeli border — and risking a response from Tel Aviv.
Without Moscow’s restraining hand, “a broader war could be only a miscalculation away,” the think tank warned.
Despite its recent moves in the region, Iran’s government is keenly aware and also a bit wary of Russia’s potential power over the situation, said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“This role of Russia as the kingmaker … certainly concerns the Iranians because they’re watching to see whether Moscow will sell out their interests, which are certainly not identical to Russian interests,” she said, stressing the size of Tehran’s investment in Syria in recent years. Hundreds of senior officers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have died in the Syrian civil war, and there is even grumbling back in Iran about the extent of the military’s commitment to the war.
But “the Iranians are there to stay,” Ms. Maloney said.
“What we’ve seen over the course of recent weeks is an attempt by the Iranians both to consolidate their gains in Syria but also to test the limits,” she said. “They’ve been looking to, I think, establish exactly where the Israeli red lines are and see how far they can test the tolerance of the Israelis.”
U.S. ‘on the sidelines’
Washington has not been a central actor in the rising tensions between Iran and Israel, said International Crisis Group President and CEO Robert Malley, who served as the top Middle East specialist on President Obama’s National Security Council.
The Trump administration “is content allowing Israel to take the lead in pushing back against Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Syria, which has become, by the way, the guidance principle of U.S. policy in the Middle East, which is too thwart, either directly or through others, Iran’s advances,” he said.
“I’m not sure that [the Trump administration] is egging anyone on,” he said, “but it’s certainly sitting on the sidelines and allowing Israel to push back.”
Tony Badran, a fellow the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the current dynamic has “come at a cost for Israel,” which has so far engaged only in tactical strikes against Iranian military assets.
“It does not address the broader strategic factor of Iran’s growing position in Syria, and it leaves Iran’s other regional headquarters in Lebanon untouched,” Mr. Badran wrote in an analysis this week.
“The Iranians can absorb tactical strikes so long as they are able to consolidate their strategic position in Syria and Lebanon,” he wrote. “As Iran’s position strengthens, and as Israel’s military and political hand weakens, the Israelis will soon be left with little choice other than to launch a devastating war.
“To avoid that outcome, the United States needs to adjust its policy — and fast,” Mr. Badran added. “Rather than leave Israel to navigate around the Russians and go after Iran’s assets in Syria and Lebanon on its own, it should endorse Israel’s red lines regarding Iran in Syria, and amplify its campaign against Iranian assets. In addition, it should revise its Lebanon policy and end its investment in the Hezbollah-controlled order there.”