Neither wants a fully fledged war despite the language, but further confrontations are expected
Arch-enemies Iran and Israel crossed a line this weekend that both have been warning about for years: a direct confrontation between their militaries.
In just a few hours, a potentially devastating precedent was set between two of the region’s most bellicose states when Israel downed a drone in its airspace that it claimed was Iranian. After responding by bombing what Israel said was an Iranian target deep in Syria, one Israeli F-16 fighter jet crashed amid a barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. Having lost its first jet in decades, Israel again hit what it said were Iranian targets, this time near Damascus.
After decades of fighting through proxy militia, such as the Tehran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, the clash on Saturday brought the direct battle into the open. As both sides assess the remains from the brief engagement, each will be deliberating on whether the long-looming spectre of war has finally appeared.
“We need to prepare ourselves operationally and intelligence-wise for the mounting threat,” Brig Gen Amit Fisher, the Israel Defense Forces chief responsible for the Syrian frontier, told troops on Sunday. “The big test will be the test of war.”
The IDF said it had enhanced defences in northern Israel, close to Syria, while the Jerusalem Post newspaper cited witnesses claiming a convoy of missile-defence batteries had moved north.
A former commander of the IDF northern command said Israel was lucky that their pilot and navigator ejected over Israel and survived, but more violence was to come. “That’s the price of war. My assessment is that the incident isn’t over and that we’re now only in a timeout,” Maj Gen Amiram Levin told a local radio station.
Tehran says Iranian personnel are only at Syrian bases to advise the government of Bashar al-Assad and claims Iran has no conventional armed forces in the country. It denied it had sent a drone into Israeli airspace.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council, remained defiant on Sunday. The “Zionists”, Tehran’s terminology for Israel, had failed to “inflict damage on Iranian-Syrian bases”, the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted him as saying.
“The Syrian nation proved this time that it will respond to any act of aggression, as the era of hit and run is over,” Shamkhani added, in apparent praise of the downing of the Israeli jet. Although this appears to be the first time Israel has hit what it said was an Iranian base in the country, Syrian sites have long been targeted by the IDF.
Reacting to reports of the downing, Hossein Salamai, the deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, warned: “Iran can create a hell for the Zionists.”
Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at International Crisis Group, said: “We are entering a stage in which it is likely we will see more clashes between Israel and Iranian forces.”
While Zalzberg said he did not think either country desired a fully fledged war, the situation in Syria had brought them to blows, and more were to be expected.
Israel has warned that Iran intends to set up permanent bases in Syria and use them to attack the Jewish state. This, Zalzberg said, was why Israel would be trying to prove the drone it said entered Israeli airspace was Iranian.
“That places a question mark on the Iran narrative in which Tehran has only deployed advisers in Syria and exclusively for the purpose of the Syrian war,” he said.
Most concerning for Israel, and where future clashes could erupt, is the frontier it shares with Syria in the occupied Golan Heights. For much of the Syrian war, which began as a popular uprising in 2011 and turned into a conflict after a bloody government response, the Syrian side of the Heights has been controlled by rebels.
But an emboldened Assad may try to retake it. Zalzberg said Assad would be unlikely to do this with just the Syrian army and may rely on Hezbollah militants and even Iranian officers.
Having an Iranian military presence right on the border is a red line for the Israelis, Zalzberg said. “Israel will be willing to pay a high cost to prevent such a scenario.”