By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, regional powers such as Israel and Turkey have done what they can to avoid being pulled into an impossible situation. However, much has changed recently after Turkey invaded northern Syria to prevent Kurdish forces there from gaining strength. Israel, meanwhile, has done very little beyond targeting the occasional Hezbollah arms shipment.
Iranian Military Drone from Syria Tests Israeli Air Defenses
That situation changed over the past weekend when an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace from Syria. According to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), the drone was spotted on radar but was allowed to enter Israeli airspace.
Once the drone crossed the border, however, it was shot down by an IAF attack helicopter. The IAF was clear regarding its intention to allow the drone to enter Israeli airspace; the Israelis wanted to recover it. This situation is nothing unusual, but it is evident that the Iranian military in Syria feels confident enough to begin probing Israeli defenses.
In a way, this testing of border defenses was inevitable. Numerous nations entered the fray in Syria to dispose of the Islamic State. Now that ISIS has lost nearly all of its territory, the realpolitik of the nations involved is taking over the situation.
Nations and Religious Groups Pursuing Their Self-Interests
Each nation has a different interest in the future of Syria. But for Israel, it cannot allow the large Iranian military presence, along with Hezbollah and the plethora of other Shia militias next door, to metastasize into an existential threat. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said as much.
It is no surprise that the IAF initiated a raid into Syria, striking several targets in retaliation. The Israelis lost an F-16 warplane in the raid from the newer air defenses that Russia provided to the Syrian government. But Israel did demonstrate that it retains the capability to hit Syria at will.
Israel still faces a high risk, however. Iran is operating openly in Syria and Iraq, but so is Russia. Moscow and Baghdad have an interest in the survival of the Assad regime, but they support Assad for very different reasons.
Nonetheless, the presence of these two nations’ military forces next door to Israel is of paramount concern to Tel Aviv. As a result, Israel is in frequent contact with Moscow. Although Russia understands Israel’s interests, Moscow cannot allow the Iranian position to weaken to the extent that Assad’s survival would be threatened.
Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared victory in his Syrian adventure. He cannot allow the situation to escalate now, as that would undermine him domestically on the eve of the presidential election next month, which Putin is sure to win. Even so, it is no surprise that Putin phoned Netanyahu shortly after the Israeli raid.
Some Arab Nations Think Israel Can Disrupt Iranian Activities
Because Israel opposes Iranian expansion and has a capable military, several Arab nations have changed their tune slightly toward the Jewish state. In other words, the interests of two longtime foes are intersecting.
This intersection is not perpetual, but several Arab nations are in close proximity to Iran and any capable ally they can get is vital. Iran now has the capability of deploying troops into Iraq and Syria, effectively creating a land bridge all the way to Lebanon.
Many of the smaller Arab nations have been nervously watching Iran. In decades past, Iran could threaten its neighbors, but Iran was hemmed in by the very mountains that protect it. Iran now has a freer hand to move about in the heart of the Middle East.
Arab disunity will continue to hinder any meaningful action against Iran. But some Middle Eastern nations, such as Saudi Arabia, will do whatever is necessary to disrupt Iranian activities.
As strange as it may sound, Israel will play an indirect role in disrupting Iran. Any action that Israel takes to counter Iran in Syria will affect Tehran’s ability to act elsewhere, to the benefit of other Arab states.
Turkey also sees its interests conflicting with Iran now that the Islamic State has been diminished. Although Turkey and Israel, not to mention the Arab states, do not see eye to eye, their interests in countering Iran are becoming critical. The longer Iran can keep its military operating without hindrance in Syria, the more entrenched it will become.
Israel has long stated that it cannot allow Iran to become permanently embedded within Syria. But with other players in the region viewing the Iranian presence around the Middle East in the same light, pressure will be brought to bear against Tehran’s plans.
The Syrian civil war has been a bloody affair for the past seven years. But with so many nations pursuing their agendas in the Middle East, there is little chance of the bloodshed ending anytime soon. Israel just happens to have been forced to become a far more active player than it would prefer.