Between Tawhid and Menorah: Israel, Iran and the Syrian conflict

12 Feb 2018


Early on Saturday morning an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian government anti-aircraft fire. Whilst the loss of an Israeli aircraft made the headlines, the real shock was that the plane had been taking part in the largest air operation launched by Israeli forces since the 1982 Lebanon War.


Whilst Israel has intermittently clashed with multiple Arab states since its inception, the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 ushered in a distinctly new era of hostilities. Although the government of Bashar al-Assad has been mostly preoccupied by fighting within Syria's borders, regime allies such as Iran have taken advantage of the clear opportunity provided by the chaos to improve their military standing vis-à-vis Israel.


It is no secret that the Iranians contribute arms and equipment to Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based Shi’a military organisation and political party which considers the liberation of ‘the 1948 borders of Palestine’ as fundamental to its existence. Israeli aircraft may have been knocking out Iranian-Hezbollah supply lines for years, but the recent conflict has allowed Tehran to take the step of constructing supply bases and depots within Syrian territory, thereby reducing the time taken to ferry arms to militants.


As demonstrated on Saturday morning, the response of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has been to renew their air strikes with increased vigour. Israeli jets and drone attacks have destroyed numerous supply bases within Syrian territory, drawing flak (quite literally) from Syrian government forces and even the occasional drone intrusion from the more technologically advanced Iranians.


This would not seem unusual amidst the confusion of the Syrian conflict if it was not for the size of the new IDF operations. At least twelve military bases and strongpoints – both Iranian and Syrian – were attacked in the early hours of Saturday morning. Such a high-profile flexing of Israeli military might is a sure sign of uncertainty in the Knesset.


Indeed there is much for the Israelis to be uncertain about. Not only is Iran supplying Hezbollah with increasingly advanced equipment, but the fact that the war has been going in Assad’s favour ever since Russia intervened in 2015 has meant that Hezbollah’s place on Syrian soil is guaranteed. The Russians themselves, though not directly hostile to Israel, have little interest in compromising their allegiance to Iran and Syria. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Russian response to Saturday’s air strikes was simply to urge restraint.



Israel’s regional troubles have not been helped by the behaviour of its allies. The United States, though still Israel’s key strategic partner and the dominant global power, is beginning to retreat from the Middle East. Sending equipment and Special Forces to help the Kurds and Iraqis fight the now-vanquished Islamic State was enough to content the Americans, who are still cautious of getting bogged down in another desert conflict. Indeed US commanders are right to be wary: in northern Syria there have already been numerous Turkish attacks on Kurdish militias (whom they view as terrorists), despite the Kurds being supplied by the US and the Turks being a member of NATO. In some cases, US personnel have themselves come under fire.


The view from Jerusalem is not a pretty one. The war in Syria will no doubt drag on, with Assad clawing back more and more territory as rebel forces collapse in the face of the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance. The northern part of the country is set to become a battleground between the Turks and Kurds, with the US prevaricating over whether or not to get involved in a conflict from which it has nothing to gain. (Something US commanders will hopefully consider without taking the risk of consulting the President.)


In all likelihood the growing threat of Iranian involvement in Syria and its new proximity to Hezbollah will lead to more extensive Israeli military action. It is certainly telling that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently decided to visit troops on the Syrian border, taking full advantage of the publicity to warn Israel’s enemies not to test its resolve. Unfortunately for Mr Netanyahu, as Iran and its allies come closer to cementing their power in the Middle East, they will only become more confident in their approach to Israel. With US influence waning and Israel’s old enemies on the rise, escalation may only be a matter of time.

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