Last Saturday, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and immediately retaliated, attacking the Iranian base in Syria that launched the drone. This was the first time Israel attacked an Iranian-manned base in Syria, and in another first, Syrian air defense downed an Israeli F-16 fighter jet during the attack.
As tensions begin to boil in the Middle East, Israel faces newfound complications in the Syrian conflict as Iran and its proxy militias are growing bolder and extending their influence in Syria.
Syria’s initial civil war that began in 2011 has now morphed into a regional conflict with a broader impact across the globe. The United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran all have troops on the ground, and the complicated web of interests and influence raises the risk of a single incident erupting the unstable region into war.
Militants tied to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group and political party, claim that they’ve deployed more than 70,000 long-range missiles across the Lebanese and Syrian borders of Israel.
A pro-Hezbollah website, Dahiya, published an article on February 9th that claimed, “Syria and Hezbollah will wage a ‘joint missile campaign’ against Israel, and… Iranian experts are ready to launch missiles at Israel from every part of Lebanon and Syria.”
The pro-Hezbollah article further stated, “If the Israeli enemy remains idle and does not wage war for a year, Hezbollah will deploy half a million missiles on Syrian soil, in addition to [its missiles in] Lebanon, but especially throughout Syria, so that Israel's planes will find it difficult to target Hezbollah's bases there.”
In recent months, Israel sent messages to Iran, Syria, and Russia that it will not tolerate Iranian activity along their Syrian border, whether it’s directly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or proxy militias. It’s likely that Iran was testing the waters by sending a drone into Israeli airspace – trying to determine where the line really stands.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Putin in Moscow on January 29th to discuss Iran’s growing presence in Syria, along with Russia’s ability to help mitigate a possible escalation of war.
Leading up to the visit, Netanyahu said, “Look, when I saw that Russia’s placing military forces, air power, some ground power, and anti-aircraft weapons in Syria, I decided that the wisest thing to do was to go and speak to Mr. Putin directly."
Netanyahu added, “You have your interests in Syria, and we have our interest, which is not to be attacked by Iran and its proxies from the soil of Syria either directly or through the provision of offensive weapons, very deadly weapons that are filtered through Syria into Lebanon to a warfront that Iran is building in Lebanon.”
The United States will maintain its presence in the region by keeping boots on the ground and backing Kurdish forces in Syria with U.S. weapons, air power, and Special Operations units. American-backed Kurdish-led forces control roughly 27 percent of Syria, which is territory they captured from the Islamic State.
According to the State Department’s policy regarding Syria, as stated last month by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the U.S. will keep boots on the ground until “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.”
On Saturday, an American drone destroyed a Russian-made T-72 battle tank operating in eastern Syria.
According to a statement from U.S. Central Command:
\\*The tank had been maneuvering with coordinated indirect fire on a defensive position occupied by Syrian Democratic Forces and Coalition advisers… The defensive position was within effective range of the tank's weapon system. Coalition officials maintained regular contact with Russian counterparts via established de-confliction lines to avoid misperceptions and miscalculations that could endanger each other's forces.\\*
Tillerson sure has his hands full between the skirmishes in Syria and their broader impact across the Middle East.
And to an even greater measure - Netanyahu is spread thin between the turbulence in Syria and the recent allegations of corruption.