A wayward drone, airstrikes, a downed Israeli jet—here's what this weekend's scuffle means for the coming year in a volatile region.
Left Image: Photo by Jason Reed - Pool/Getty Images. Right Image: Photo by Pool/Iranian Religious Leader Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Iran and Israel have been adversaries for decades, but on Saturday the long-simmering conflict boiled over after Israel shot down what it says was an Iranian drone that flew deep into its airspace from Syria. (Tehran disputes that it launched the device, but its military has been supporting the Assad regime on the ground.) Israel launched a strike at the base the drone allegedly took off from, and in the ensuing battle an Israeli F-16 jet was shot down, the first time one of the country's aircraft was felled by enemy fire since 1982.
That's when things really started to heat up.
In response to the symbolically potent loss of one of its aircraft, Israel launched another set of retaliatory strikes at Syrian air defenses, including bases staffed with Iranian personnel. That's a crucial detail, as the Iran-Israel conflict has tended in recent years to involve proxies like Iran-backed Hezbollah rather than open military engagement between the two powers. After making what some observers suggested was a major dent in Syrian air defenses, Israel backed off, perhaps thanks in part to the intervention of Russia, which urged restraint from both countries.
This might seem like just another episode in an endless conflict and another example of the chaos the region is in at the moment. But with the Assad regime bearing down on the Syrian rebels' last remaining strongholds, the Trump administration constantly threatening the Iran nuclear deal, and the presence of American and Russian forces inside Syria, the potential for some kind of nightmarish scenario here seems to be real.
For perspective on just how remarkable this weekend's events were, and whether all-out war between Israel and Iran is actually on the table now, I called up Ofer Zalzberg, the senior analyst for Israel/Palestine at the International Crisis Group, a think tank focused on avoiding unnecessary conflict. Here's what we talked about.
VICE: It's pretty remarkable in and of itself that a foreign drone would penetrate deeply into Israeli airspace, right? Do you have any doubt it was Iranian?
Ofer Zalzberg: Absolutely, highly unusual. They've already released first findings—Israel has the drone in its hands. The fact that the Iranians still deny [it's theirs] suggests that they don't think there is something that will easily trace it back to them. But Israelis are really going to take this thing to pieces and see whether they can demonstrate to the world that in fact is Iranian or operated by Iranians in Syria. Israel, in doing so, is trying is to dispel the Iranian narrative by which Iran is in Syria exclusively in order to help Assad in his war with the rebels and that it is not there, supposedly, in order to harass Israel. We'll see what kind of evidence they conjure. Even if it's not Iranian, someone sent a drone. If it's Iranian or Syrian on some level is less crucial because it's really intrusive. There are at least two kinds of drone—one is merely for gathering intelligence, and the other is a combat drone. Having the capacity to penetrate Israel with a combat drone would grant Iran or whoever operated this significant offensive capacity.
If we accept the Israeli claim that it is Iranian, then what we are seeing, perhaps, is Iran signaling to Israel that as long as Israel is violating Syrian airspace, then others will violate Israeli airspace.
Iran has a special resonance in Israel, right?
In Israel, there is a wide sense that Iran is an existential threat intent on destroying Israel. And therefore such an intrusive act generates a lot of emotions, much more than any other country. This is significant because Israeli public opinion today is highly risk-averse when it comes to Iran. It means that it will be difficult for Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to implement a policy with respect to Iran that does allow for some minimal risk.
The Israeli response seemed to reflect that—it was aggressive and by some accounts knocked out half of Syria's air defenses. It was unusual, though, for Israel to strike Iranian targets, right? Does that concern you or strike you as a potential turning point?
We're now operating based on the premise that this was indeed Iranian. But, yes, this is a turning point because it shows an exchange of blows between Israel and Iran. And it shows that Israel [has decided] to not only strike allies of Iran but Iranian targets, in spite of the risk involved in escalation as a result of this—the potentiality of Iranian casualties, primarily. It really makes it easier to speak of a direct Israeli-Iranian conflict, and of an increasingly probability of such incidents in the future.
My impression is if Iran was willing to do something so significant, then this is only the beginning, and it is more likely that we will see, during the rest of 2018, that this incident was the preview to additional incidents.
I saw one report in Haaretz that Russian President Vladimir Putin just called Netanyahu and asked him to deescalate. Is Russia really that powerful here?
The way I take the Russian declarations here is that they really tried to keep a low profile. They stuck to generalities, and called on the parties to deescalate. They showed that Moscow is trying to continue to have cooperative relations with both sides and trying not to jeopardize its relations, not with Israel, not with Iran and Hezbollah, obviously not with Damascus.
When I read some of their statements, it's almost like they're saying, We are a neutral third party. We are from Switzerland. We are not hermetically controlling their airspace. We are not one of the main backers of Assad and his government.
Does the prospect of open war make the Obama-Kerry nuclear deal look better in hindsight? If nothing else, Tehran doesn't have nukes on the table here, right?
As I see it, the war that could be triggered is primarily an Israeli-Hezbollah war, who had another one in 2006. I don't see the Iranian army [getting involved here]. But if there had not been a nuclear deal and we had the same situation in Syria—some people would say these things are interlinked, it would be a totally different situation. But to the extent that we nevertheless find ourselves in this situation, it's certainly reasonable to say the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal] placed Iran further away from breakout capacity, and in this sense is a positive diplomatic achievement. In Europe and some parts of the US, [however], they think all of this would not have happened had it not been for the JCPOA. And I think they overstate it.
They think the nuclear deal made things worse.
In fact [they think] it emboldened Iran because it gave more money to Iran to remove the sanctions, it fire-walled the nuclear issue from Iranian expansion, and therefore, in their view, it is because of the JCPOA that we are in this situation.
How much is this about Israel and Iran as opposed to Israel and Iran-backed militants like Hezbollah?
The risk of full-fledged war, conventional war, between Israel and Iran is still very low. But the risk of war between Israel and Hezbollah that is triggered by events in Syria is increasing by the day.
I don't think there are any significant political forces in Hezbollah that want war, but I think they are now facing dilemmas regarding the kind of risk they can take and specifically with respect to any role they might play in supporting Assad retaking the southwest [of Syria], which it seems Assad is unable to retake with his own army alone. Now, do they feel that thanks to all of the dramatic build-up over military power, they deter Israel sufficiently that even if they participate in such a campaign it will not lead to war with Israel? Or do they feel that this is too risky and perhaps it's better to let Assad try this alone, even if he doesn't succeed? Here there is debate internally. I think Netanyahu's strong reaction feeds that debate.
We could see a major escalation even though neither side wants it.
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