The Israeli air strikes that targeted an alleged Iranian drone base near the western Syrian city of Palmyra on Saturday were hardly Israel’s first foray into the Syrian civil conflict. Over the past few years, Israel has intervened sporadically in its neighbor’s civil war to prevent Iran from using it as a conduit for weapons to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
What’s different is that now Iranian military forces are themselves at Israel’s door and Israel is engaging them directly, as opposed to playing cat-and-mouse with Iranian proxies and arms convoys. That means Syria could become the theater for a direct confrontation between two of the most powerful states in the Middle East.
Saturday’s engagement — an Iranian drone shot down over Israeli airspace, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet struck by Syrian anti-aircraft fire while firing on the Iranian base and forced to crash land, and a retaliatory strike by Israel on 12 targets in Syria including four other purported Iranian military installations — took place in Syria but had little to do with Syria. The belligerents in this battle were Israel, Iran, and in a supporting role, Russia, which likely supplied Syria with the anti-aircraft missiles that shot down the Israeli plane.
Notwithstanding Russia’s statement urging all parties to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” neither Israel nor Iran really perceives Syria as an integral sovereign state at this point. And why would they? It’s a failed state beset with intractable violence and a humanitarian crisis virtually unparalleled in recent history. Bashar al-Assad’s government is only recapturing territory from the various rebel factions thanks to the intervention of its patrons in Tehran and Moscow. Even if Assad is able to restore full military control over the entirety of Syria, political control is another story.
Thus, to Iran, Syria is a badly damaged puppet that nonetheless helps it solidify its influence in the Shiite Arab heartland; from Israel’s point of view, it’s a forward operating base in Iran’s campaign to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who adheres strongly to the belief that Iran is an existential threat that cannot be trusted, stressed this point in his statement on Saturday evening, saying Israel would “defend ourselves resolutely against any attack against us and against any attempt by Iran to establish itself militarily against us in Syria or anywhere else.”
It’s important to recognize that Israel is not quite intervening in the Syrian civil war, in the sense that a great power intervenes in a conflict to tilt it in favor of one side or another. Israel has no preferred winner in Syria: While a continuation of the Assad regime would be troublesome, so too would be a neighbor ruled by Islamist militants. It does, however, have a preferred loser: namely, Iran.
Tehran supporting Assad and Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria are irritants to Israel, if manageable ones. As Netanyahu made clear on Saturday, an actual Iranian military presence anywhere near Israel’s borders is intolerable. That’s why Israel has reportedly been backing local militias to establish a buffer zone to keep the Syrian army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, and any other Iranian proxies outside striking distance of the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981 but which international law still considers occupied Syrian territory.
The other thing to watch here is who Israel is talking to — and who it isn’t. Before Saturday’s incidents, Netanyahu reportedly conveyed the message to Iran through European intermediaries that if it did not cease its military entrenchment in Syria, including what Israel believes to be the construction of missile factories in Syria and Lebanon, Israel would respond to these provocations with military force.
Saturday evening, Netanyahu had a “very serious and tense” conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin, according to Al-Monitor columnist Ben Caspit, in which he restated “the message that Israel has been trying to get through to the Russians for quite a while now … that Iran has gone from being an asset operating on behalf of Russian interests into a burden … [and] that it would not hesitate to ruin Putin’s party in Syria if Israel’s own interests are harmed.” Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, doubts whether Israel can convince Russia to abandon Iran as a client, however, noting that it doesn’t have much leverage to force Moscow’s hand.
Netanyahu also spoke with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Saturday, but this conversation was of much less significance. Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy, told Bloomberg on Sunday that Israel does not see the U.S. as a significant player in Syria. “America did not ante up in Syria,” Oren said. “It’s not in the game.” Russia, on the other hand, is more or less running the game. A recent report from the International Crisis Group agreed, noting that Russia is the only entity in a position to de-escalate the conflict in Syria and prevent Israel and Iran from barreling into an all-out war. That’s why Netanyahu called Putin on Saturday and not President Donald Trump.
For his part, Trump expressed apparent frustration with Israel on Sunday regarding the prospects for peace negotiations with the Palestinians, saying “I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace” and that Israeli settlements “are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace” in an interview with the Sheldon Adelson–financed free Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.
On the one hand, that’s some refreshing candor coming from an American president, but on the other, the tenor of the interview indicated that Trump probably won’t have the patience to actively broker peace talks. And of course, he also polished his right-wing bona fides by describing his predecessor Barack Obama as “absolutely terrible for Israel” and the Iranian nuclear agreement as “a deal that says let’s ultimately do bad things to Israel.’
Also, Israel is not on the itinerary for Tillerson’s trip to the Middle East this week, during which he will visit Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Kuwait. Katz, Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro are among those urging Tillerson to change his travel plans, particularly in light of the recent escalation, but Netanyahu may not care either way.