Israel squares off for showdown with Iran in Syria

Al Jazeera:

A surge in Israeli-Syrian cross-border incidents has turned into the “biggest” confrontation between the two countries in decades and confronted Russia with a new dilemma: how to preserve its ties with both sides.

The tit-for-tat attacks, which started on Saturday and continued until the following day, have been accompanied by a war of words, with Benjamin Netanyahu warning that Israel would continue to strike against any aggression.

“We dealt severe blows to the Iranian and Syrian forces,” Netanyahu said, referring to Iranian bases present inside Syria.

The toughest Israeli aerial assault on Syrian and Iranian bases was reportedly in response to Syrian forces shooting down an Israeli fighter jet on Saturday and claims that an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace.

The attacks, which killed at least six Syrian troops and allied militia members, targeted areas near the Syrian capital Damascus, with Israel warning about increased Iranian involvement along its borders with Syria and Lebanon.

A statement by the pro-government military alliance in Syria had said that the drones were being used against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group fighters.

But Israel’s chief military spokesperson said Israel held Iran directly accountable for the incident.

On Saturday, Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin over the phone that Israel intended to counter Iran’s actions, while Putin urged the Israeli leader to avoid any steps that could escalate tensions.

Russia, a strategic ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has maintained close relations with Netanyahu, who has been blaming Iranian paramilitary units in Syria of breaching its sovereignty by carrying out over-the-border attacks over the past six years.

The frequency of Israeli raids has intensified since 2012 when Iranian paramilitary fighters entered Syria following the start of the Syrian civil war. Israel has never publicly admitted to such attacks, which vary from firing rockets to air raids.

Experts believe that the latest development forced Israel into admitting that it had launched attacks due to the shooting down of its F-16 fighter jet – the first time Israel had lost an aircraft to enemy fire.

“This was a major loss and defeat for Israel, and I don’t think that this is something the [Israeli] regime could cover up,” Mohammad Marandi, an academic at the University of Tehran, told Al Jazeera.

“The Israelis are using Iran as a scapegoat … to be able to carry out attacks on regional countries and justify the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people.”

Iran’s presence in Syria has officially been aimed at combating ISIL, al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Marandi says Israel is supporting these groups on its borders.

‘Weakening its neighbours’

Israel and Syria have been at the brink of war ever since Israel occupied a part of the strategic Golan Heights that it annexed following the 1967 Six Day War.

The move played a role in Israel’s decision to refrain from getting involved in the Syrian conflict.

Its occasional attacks against Syrian targets have been to stop what it describes as the delivery of advanced weaponry to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, whose fighters are present in southern Lebanon.

Marandi says the issue is not Iran and its influence. Rather, it is Israel’s attempt at weakening the Syrian
government, which along with Iran, is attempting to push al-Qaeda out of the country.

In 2016, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy revealed to Al Jazeera that Israel maintained “tactical” relations with al-Nusra Front – al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria.

“It’s always useful

to deal with your enemies in a humane way,” Halevy said, revealing that Israel used to treat wounded fighters from al-Nusra Front.

He also said that he would not support the treatment of wounded Hezbollah fighters because Hezbollah had targeted Israel.

When asked if a war between Hezbollah and Israel is imminent, Marandi said that it would not be in Israel’s favour.

However, others believe that Russia – an ally of Syria, Iran, and Israel – is the only party that can limit the possibility of an upcoming regional war.

Following the latest attacks, Israel protested against Iran’s presence and growing power in Syria.

“At the beginning, Israel and the US did not object to its [Iran] presence in Syria because back then, the opposition had the upper hand and the Syrian regime was on brink of defeat,” Omar Kouch, a Syrian political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“Up until 2016, when Russia intervened, the balance of power shifted in favour of the Syrian regime,” Kouch explained.

“Israel did not want the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Its issue is not with the regime; its issue is with Iran, which threatens its security,” he said.

“This is why several Israeli attacks in 2016, 2017, and today in 2018, were carried out.”

According to Kouch, Iran knew that such attacks would occur.

“Iran and Syria were prepared, and several rockets of various kinds were fired,” he said.

On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country was ready to defend the region and warned that “increasing terrorism … bombing neighbouring countries” would not achieve Israel’s objectives.

But a full-frontal war is unlikely at this time, Kouch believes, as Russia is trying to maintain its alliance with Iran and Israel simultaneously.

“These two equations [Iran’s influence in the region and Israel’s security concerns] are very difficult to balance – both projects are colonialist projects that are hugely conflicted,” he said.

“And the presence of the many players make such frictions inevitable.”

Last month, Netanyahu met Putin in Moscow to discuss Israeli concerns over Iran’s presence in Syria.

“I will discuss with President Putin Iran’s relentless efforts to establish a military presence in Syria, which we strongly oppose and are also taking action against,” Netanyahu had said.

Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli analyst with the International Crisis Group, said that Israel would inspect the drone from Saturday’s incident and try to “demonstrate that it was indeed Iranian, in spite of Tehran’s denials”.

Zalzberg also agreed that Russia’s alliance with both parties could thwart a potential escalation and perhaps meet each party’s demands.

“If anyone can broker a reality in which Israel succeeds in its endeavour to stop Iranian bases from being permanently set up in Syria, and Iran succeeds in keeping Damascus a cooperative partner – it is Russia,” he said.

The ongoing border violence is unlikely to stop, experts Al Jazeera spoke to predicted, a fact that puts civilian lives continuously at risk.

“Ultimately, the only losers here are the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution,” said Kouch.

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