As the hours tick by, the view is gaining ground that the today's penetration of Israeli air space by an Iranian drone aircraft was not by chance, and that the Iranians were out to test the strength of an Israeli response to such an incident, and, even more so, the response of Russia.
Israel responded with air strikes into Syria this morning after the Iranian drone was shot down. An Israeli F-16 was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire and its two crew bailed out over Israeli territory. One of them is seriously injured in hospital. Israel carried out further strikes against Syrian air defenses during the day. IDF sources say that the Iranians have been using the Tiyas Military Airbase, also known as the T-4 Airbase, near the Syrian city of Palmyra, freely.
The testing of Israel's defenses is the reason for the initial denial by official Iran that the UAV had entered Israeli airspace. A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry said, "The claim that an unmanned aircraft penetrated into Israel is false. Iran's presence in Syria is for advisory purposes, and is with the consent of the Syrian government. The Syrian army and people are fully entitled to defend their homeland."
At the same time, however, a statement from the militant Iranian Revolutionary Guard said, "We have the capability of opening the gates of hell for Israel should we want to." Later, Iran's President Rouhani warned, "If certain countries think that by bombing neighboring countries they can reach a solution, they are making a grave mistake."
But the promised gates of hell did not open, even when Israel attacked Iranian targets on Syrian territory and, according to unverified reports, Iranian military personnel were killed. The lack of response indicates fear of a sharper and more painful Israeli response, since Israel has complete command of the air over all of southern Syria, and also a Russian demand from Teheran to exercise restraint and avoid escalation. The Iranians do not want to lose their bases in Syria, the anchors they have dropped there, whether through Israeli strikes or through a Russian ultimatum to leave the country or at least to avoid confrontation with Israel.
Another sign that today's incident was not happenstance is the statement by Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese arm, which chose to respond with aggressive language: "The shooting down of the plane is the beginning of a new strategic stage that will restrict Israel's exploitation of Syrian airspace. The infringement of Syrian and Lebanese sovereignty will not be passed over in silence. The old formulae vis-a-vis Israel have been cancelled." In other words, the aim of the escalation is to limit Israeli air power in Syrian skies. Hezbollah media have been citing senior Syrian officials who have threatened that "the time of Israeli flights over Syria is over", but the official responses are much more muted, and even somewhat lachrymose, over the fact that Israel has disrupted media broadcasts in Syria.
And what of Putin, the main stakeholder in the region? Israel is aware of Russia's decisive influence in Syria, and America's absence, which is why Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, maintains close ties with Putin. Only ten days ago, the two men met, with Syria and Iran's infiltration into it at the top of their agenda. It is highly unlikely that Putin had advance information about Iran's intention of sending the drone, but it is almost certain that the Russian air defense officers who are training Syria's anti-aircraft forces knew about the firing of anti-aircraft missiles at the Israel Air Force plane. The Russian officers are stationed at most of Syria's anti-aircraft bases, where they are teaching the use of the air defense systems that Moscow has sold to Assad, and in some cases, in bases in the northwest of the country, they control these systems, for the defense of Russian forces stationed there. At one of these bases, Khmeimim Air Base, not far from the Mediterranean shore, is the Russian command bunker for its forces in Syria, which has a direct line of communication with the Israeli high command. This is necessary because of the activity of both the Israeli and Russian air forces over Syria. Israel has informed the Russians in advance of most of its strikes near Russian forces, and this presumably is what happened today, as most of the targets were Syrian air defense installations. It also appears that Russia did not warn Israel of the massive anti-aircraft fire that would be directed at its warplanes.
And so in this multi-sided game, the Iranian's set off the spark to try to change the equation; the Israelis responded once, and after that, following the downing of their aircraft, responded much more fiercely in order to retain control; the Syrians found themselves protecting Iranian interests and being hit by Israeli strikes; and everyone is waiting for the reaction of the Russians.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 10, 2018
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