An Israeli F15 jet fighter was downed by Syrian anti-aircraft fire yesterday. Luckily it crashed within Israeli territory on the Golan Heights. The two pilots bailed out, and were rescued, but one was seriously injured. The situation arose because an Iranian drone over-flew Israeli territory and was brought down by Israeli fire. Although the Iranians deny this, Israel has published photos of the drone with Farsi writing on it. In retaliation the IAF attacked the Iranian military facility from where the drone originated and then the plane was downed. Why is this a significant event?
Israel feels it must have freedom of action to over-fly parts of Syria, because Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are building up their forces in Syria close to the Israeli border, and Iran has made no secret of its intention to destroy Israel in the near future. Statements from Iranian leaders have been quite explicit, talking about the coming end of Israel and of Jewish control over Jerusalem. In order to prevent Israeli jets over-flying the areas where Iran is building up its forces and its military supplies and production facilities, Syria has installed both Iranian and Russian anti-aircraft batteries. Israel cannot tolerate not being able to both control the skies and also being able to see what advances Iran is making in its plans to attack Israel.
Israel has now counter-attacked the Syrian anti-aircraft systems that brought down the Israeli plane and other sites totaling twelve attacks. These systems are of course not actually Syrian, they are either Iranian or Russian. By attacking them Israel risks the danger of an immediate conflict with either Iran and/or Russia. Of course, Israel does not want in any way to come into conflict with Russia. Towards this end PM Netanyahu visited Pres. Putin in Moscow only a week ago, and has visited him before. Netanyahu has expressed to Putin that Israel cannot tolerate Iran building up their forces in Syria, but on the other hand Israel in no way means to challenge Russia’s right to support its ally Pres. Assad of Syria. It is clear that Pres. Putin knows this.
However, the complex situation in Syria has US-backed Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces fighting Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in eastern Syria, in the vacuum left by the defeat of the Islamic State. Also, Russian air force planes are bombing anti-regime forces in Idlib and Ghouta, where many civilians have been killed. Under conditions of war, sometimes, as we well know, mistakes happen. Should an Israeli plane and a Russian plane happen to get into combat, this could erase any discretion that Putin feels about Israel’s role in Syria. We are entering dangerous territory.
Also, any direct Israeli attack on Iranian facilities might cross the line that results in an Iranian counter-attack. This could escalate into a war between Iran and Israel, that has been simmering for some time. This might engage US forces too that are not far away. But, either way, the outcome could be potentially damaging for Israel and the Iranian regime. Whether this incident will be seen as a single event or the first step in a future Middle East war remains to be seen.