Middle East military heavyweights Israel, Iran on collision course over Syria

In this photo released by Lennart Preiss/MSC 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, holds a part of a downed drone during his speech at the Munich Security Conference, MSC, in Munich , Germany, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (Lennart Preiss/MSC 2018/dpa via AP)


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.”

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.”

Russian role

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.

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.”

Full article: Middle East military heavyweights Israel, Iran on collision course over Syria (The Washington Times)

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