One of the most confounding — and dangerous — aspects of the six-year-conflict in Syria is that its roster of combatants continues to broaden. Russia and Iran are helping Syrian President Bashar Assad run down U.S.-backed rebels. Islamic State has been routed from most of its territory but still controls pockets of the Euphrates River valley. NATO member Turkey recently began attacking U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters in the country’s north, the same Kurdish fighters that helped defeat Islamic State.
Now another subplot is emerging, involving one of America’s strongest allies: Israel.
On Saturday, an Iranian drone violated Israeli airspace. Israel answered quickly, shooting down the drone and then sending F-16 fighter jets into Syria to take out the command center that launched the drone. One of those F-16s on its way back to Israel was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Israel then retaliated with airstrikes on eight Syrian and four Iranian military targets within Syria.
“We will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared.
There’s much more to this than a violation of airspace.
For some time, Israelis have seethed over Iran’s ever-deepening presence in Syria. Tehran provides military support to Assad, but is also fortifying its own military presence in Syria, not far from Israel’s northern border, and helping its Shiite ally, Hezbollah, build up forces outside the Israel-occupied Golan Heights. Israel says Hezbollah is using its footprint in Syria to assemble Iranian-supplied missiles that it can fire at targets over the Israeli border. With Islamic State largely out of the picture and Assad notching victory after victory over rebel forces, Iran may feel it’s the right time to ratchet up tension with Israel.
Tehran’s vision of Syria as the ideal place to set up militarily alongside Israel cannot go unchecked. Israel will be spinning its wheels if it tries to thwart Iran’s plans on its own. It needs to team up with Washington. So far, though, that kind of collaboration has been missing in action. “If you are committed to countering Iran in the region, then you must do so in Syria,” Chagai Tzuriel, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence, told The New York Times this week.
Syria-based attacks from Assad or Iran aimed at Israel should be dealt with forcefully, but military responses aren’t the only answer.
The only player in Syria with any kind of leverage over Iran is the Kremlin. Russia has invested heavily in expanding its reach into the Middle East, and thus countering America’s influence in the region. Syria is the best example of that. But conflict between Iran, Assad, Hezbollah and Israel does more than destabilize Syria — it throws a wrench into Moscow’s Middle East agenda. The road to muzzling Iran’s belligerence in Syria could go through Moscow, a tack the U.S. and Israel should think hard about taking.
The potential looms for bigger, more ominous clashes between Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah forces on one side and Israel on the other. If Israeli lives are lost, the Netanyahu administration’s response may be much more severe. Former President Barack Obama’s disastrous handling of Syria is a prime cause for the chaos roiling the country now, and a big reason why Russia assumed dominance in the war-torn nation. Granted, the Trump administration inherited the chaos in Syria, but it can’t afford to let Iran carry out its own nefarious agenda, point blank on Israel’s doorstep.
— Chicago Tribune