Saturday saw a significant escalation in what has until now been a ‘shadow war’ between Israel and Iran. It was a day of ‘firsts’: the first time an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) controlled by the Iranians has penetrated Israeli airspace; the first time since 1982 that an Israel Air Force plane went has been downed during a combat mission; and the largest Israeli attack on Syria’s aerial defence systems since the First Lebanon War.
Events escalated quickly: At 04.25, an IAF attack helicopter IDF intercepted an Iranian UAV which had been dispatched from the T-4 base in Palmyra in eastern Syria. The UAV crossed into Jordan before infiltrating Israeli airspace near Kfar Ruppin in the Beit Shean Valley.
Just over an hour later, at 05.34, IAF fighter jets attacked Iranian targets in Syria, focusing on the UAV’s mobile command and control centre.
At 06.00, a significant number of anti-aircraft rounds, between 15-20, were launched at IAF aircraft with one of the jets hit (most likely by shrapnel rather than directly) when it was already in Israeli territory. The pilots evacuated the aircraft and landed within Israel, with one of the pilots being seriously injured (his situation has since stabilised).
Following this, at 08.45, IAF fighter jets carried out a large scale attack against Syrian aerial defence systems and additional Iranian targets in Syria. Reports suggest Israel bombed 12 targets in Syria, four of which were Iranian sites. During the attack additional anti-aircraft missiles were launched at the IAF fighter jets, and sirens were sounded in northern Israel
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has consistently sounded the alarm against increased Iranian involvement in Syria, said that Israel’s “policy is absolutely clear: Israel will defend itself against any attack and any attempt to harm our sovereignty” adding that “This is both our right and our duty and we will continue to do so as much as necessary. Let no one make a mistake about this.”
The Trump Administration “fully supported” Israel’s actions, with the State Department saying that “Iran’s calculated escalation of threat and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the region – from Yemen to Lebanon – at risk,”
Russia – which is an ally of the Assad regime and whose ultimate interest in Syria is of stability urged “all parties involved to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could lead to an even greater complication of the situation…” On a somewhat ominous note, the Russian Foreign Ministry added that “it is absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian servicemen who are in Syria at the invitation of its legitimate government to assist in the fight against terrorists.”
Israel and Russia have maintained close communication since the Russian entry into the Syrian civil war and established a hotline to prevent potential mishaps. In an interview in August, outgoing IAF chief Amir Eshel commented on Israeli action in Syria clarifying that “We don’t intend to harm the Russians, and we do everything to avoid harming them. They understand why we are taking action. They don’t agree or give us authorisation, but I think they understand what Israel is doing.” While it remains unclear how much communication the two sides had before Saturday morning’s response to the Iranian drone, the fact Netanyahu spoke to Putin following the event suggests there was at least some sort of communication – perhaps in real time – which suggests the deconfliction mechanism Eshel referred to is still in use.
In evaluating what has been the most dangerous example of what IDF Chief of Staff Eisenkott refers to as “the Campaign between Wars”, Amos Yadlin, former head of Military Intelligence, referred to the collision between two strategic vectors: the resolute Iranian strategic decision to build an advanced military force in Syria and Lebanon and the resolute Israeli strategic decision to stop the Iranians, adding that it was “most significant day of fighting in the ‘campaign between wars.’”
Despite the downing of an Israeli F-16I fighter jet, Israel chalked up several successes. It directly hit Iranian forces in Syria – demonstrating strong intelligence capabilities – and also destroying a number of Syrian SAM sites, which leaves Damascus exposed to any future attacks. The destruction of the Iranian drone – flying with low signature aided by stealth capabilities is also impressive.
Ultimately Israel is trying to send a message to both the Russians and the Assad regime that Iran is becoming a liability and that their interests converge. The Russians may balk at very little in the Middle East, but an all-out war between Israel and Iran and / or its proxies would undermine the Russian’s long term plans, which require relative stability and quiet in Syria. Moreover, by destroying Syrian SAMs, Israel has put Assad on notice that his regime will be under threat if he doesn’t work to reign in the Iranians. Yet to what extent either of these players has the ability to limit Iranian adventurism remains to be seen.
The weekend’s events bore out one conclusion in BICOM’s Forecasting paper which was published in early January 2018. In it we predicted that in the absence of US leadership and Israel’s expansion of its Syria agenda to prevent any permanent Iranian presence potentially, there was an increased possibility of a clash with Iran, especially as fully excluding Iran in Syria was unlikely, with the paper adding that Iran would likely seek for ways to deter Israel.
While the specific crisis seems to be over for now, the clashing strategic vectors of Israel and Iran haven’t changed. And while the weekend experienced lots of firsts, the clashes between Israel and Iran are unlikely to be the last.