Tensions are rising in the Middle East once again.
Over the past few hours, actions by Israel, Syria, and Iran have increased the chances of a conflagration. At around 4:30 am on Saturday, an Iranian drone entered Israeli territory from Syria. One of the Israeli military’s helicopters intercepted the drone; an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson added that the drone “was on a mission.”
In response, Israel sent eight fighter jets that morning to strike the area from where the drone supposedly launched, near the city of Palmyra. Middle East security experts, like the Royal United Services Institute’s Shashank Joshi, noted this Israeli aerial attack was quite big compared to previous ones.
For comparison, Israel used 8 F16s plus 5 F15s during the attack on Osirak in 1981. 4 F16s and 4 F15s reportedly used during the strike against Syria's reactor in 2007. https://t.co/W9Sh9SYUyi— Shashank Joshi (@shashj) February 10, 2018
Syria didn’t take kindly to that, however, and it launched anti-aircraft missiles into the sky — an Israeli official confirmed that the munitions hit one of Israel’s F-16s. Both of the Israeli pilots in the plane are safe, but one is severely injured due to “an emergency evacuation,” according to the Israeli military. Later on Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the Israeli military launched a “large scale attack” after one of its jets “crashed under Syrian antiaircraft fire.”
On Saturday night, the White House put out a statement condemning Syrian hostility and affirming its support for Israel: “Israel is a staunch ally of the United States, and we support its right to defend itself from the Iranian-backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria. We call on Iran and its allies to cease provocative actions and work toward regional peace.”
It’s the first time in years, perhaps since the 1980s, that enemy weaponry brought down an Israeli jet. IDF spokesperson Jonathan Conricus told CNN that other Israeli planes made it back to base. That might make Israel rethink its flights into Syria in order to drop bombs.
“The Israeli enemy entity early morning at dawn conducted a new aggression against one of the military bases in the central region,” the Syrian state news agency SANA said, adding that it hit more than one plane. (Syria has a history of falsely claiming that it downed Israeli aircraft.)
That led Israel to respond with even greater force: Also on Saturday, it struck at least 12 targets in Syria, including four Iranian military targets in the country. If true, it would be Israel’s first direct military confrontation with Iran across the Golan Heights, a demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria.
Israeli officials say this situation started because of Iran. “Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, Israel’s chief military spokesperson, said in a statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”
But Israel faults Syria too. “The Syrians are playing with fire that they are allowing the Iranians to attack Israel from their soil,” Conricus told the Washington Post. “The IDF is ready and capable to inflict a heavy price on anyone that attacks us.” Israel now says it has the drone and claims it is Iranian.
What makes this situation even scarier: Israel says it is “fully prepared for further action,” which means things could get worse.
That’s scary, but it’s not that new.
Israel worries about Iran in Syria
Tehran has spent the past seven years fighting to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power while using the Syrian civil war’s chaos to gain more control in the region. Israel, on the other hand, uses military force to curb Iran’s influence.
“Iran is busy turning Syria into a base of military entrenchment,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a news conference last September. “It wants to use Syria and Lebanon as war fronts against its declared goal to eradicate Israel.”
“This is something Israel cannot accept,” he continued.
We’ve seen something like this before. Last September, Israeli jets attacked a Syrian military installation near the city of Masyaf that also allegedly produced chemical weapons and advanced missiles. The Syrian Army said two soldiers died. (The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring organization that supports anti-government forces in the civil war, claimed there were at least seven casualties.)
In a statement after the attack, the Syrian military said there could be “serious repercussions of such acts of aggression on the security and stability of the region.”
The Israeli government didn’t comment on that operation. But it became pretty clear that it hit Syria to prevent Iranian ally Hezbollah — a Lebanese militant group that considers Israel an enemy — from acquiring precision-guided missiles to use against Israel.
Israel has launched around 100 strikes inside Syria over the past five years, according to Amir Eshel, a former chief of the Israeli Air Force. Usual targets include convoys of Syrian military or Hezbollah members.
Israel is particularly worried about Hezbollah because they have fought before. In 2006, the two battled in a month-long war where the militant group fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel; in response, Israeli forces fired around 7,000 bombs and missiles into Lebanon.
Around 160 Israelis troops and civilians died, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and about 1,100 Lebanese — most of them civilians — perished, per Human Rights Watch, a US-based advocacy organization. The organization also reports about 4,400 Lebanese were injured, and that around 1 million people were displaced.
Today, Israel believes Hezbollah has around 150,000 rockets at its disposal, although those weapons aren’t as advanced as the precision weapons made at the facility Israel struck in September 2017.
That said, what happened last September is nothing like Saturday’s events. This most recent flare-up could escalate simmering tensions between Israel, Syria, and Iran even further — something an already roiling Middle East can’t afford.
Update: This post has been updated to confirm that Syria shot down an Israeli F-16 and to add a statement from the White House.