February 16, 2018 — Jerusalem
By Eran Lerman
Even for a nation quite used to dramatic news, what happened within the span of four days – from Shabbat morning to Tuesday evening – came as a shock to Israelis. First came the rapid sequence of events on the Syrian front, including the loss of an IAF F-16I, that seemed to lead us almost to the brink of war. Then came the police recommendations to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu, in two cases, for bribery (not only "breach of trust"), offering a criminal interpretation of his complex dealings with some Israeli tycoons. It is now up to the Attorney General to decide whether to accept these recommendations.
Conspiracy theorists did not need to labor too hard to manufacture a connection: was Netanyahu trying to drag the country into war to derail the proceedings against him? His own speech in response to the police action was indeed laced with references to his unique role as Israel's defender. But the events on Saturday were not the result of an Israeli initiative, and the cycle of action and counter-action was quickly brought to a close. Indeed, key opposition leaders – most eloquently, Labor's Yitzhak Herzog – were adamant in their insistence that such allegations were untrue, and that the IDF high command, Defense Minister Liberman, and the Prime Minister himself all acted during the crisis with the nation's highest interest in mind.
What led, then, to the sudden eruption of violence on February 10? As in the case of the Prime Minister's legal predicament, what came as a shock actually should not have come as a surprise. Both were long in coming, and in the case of the northern frontier, tensions have been rising for some time. At the root stands Iran's rising capacity and willingness to act against Israel and to pursue the destabilization of Jordan from forward bases in Syria. For quite a while, Israel—in tandem with the Saudis, the UAE and other moderate Sunni states—has been warning the world that Iran was up to no good across the region. In Syria specifically, Khamenei has been using the (rather limited) role that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps played in the war against the Islamic State to legitimize a permanent presence there, which would serve Iran's long-term designs.
Now that the regime in Tehran seems to have vanquished the wave of domestic protest, and given its claim to be the saviors of the savage Syrian regime from the rage of the Sunni majority there, the Ayatollah and his most prominent agent in the region—General Qassem Soleimani, head of the al-Qods (Jerusalem) Force of the IRGC—apparently felt that the time had come to turn their attention to Israel. Clearly, they intended for some time to test Israel's responses. They chose to do so by sending in, through Jordanian airspace, a sophisticated drone made in Iran (and at first glance, based to some extent on an American model downed over Iran a few years ago). Since this could have easily been an armed but unmanned intruder, there was no option but to shoot it down. The decision was made to await its entry into Israeli airspace, both for legal reasons—to confirm the intent to breach our sovereignty—and for intelligence purposes, so that the wreckage would fall in our hands.
Right from the beginning, Israel had good and highly detailed intelligence on the Iranian drone's command and control facility at the T-4 airbase (so named by the British when it was a station on the Tapline carrying oil from Iraq to the Mediterranean through Syria). It was struck almost immediately after by the IAF. This time the Israeli pilots took higher operational risks than what has been usual in the long, shadowy war already being fought against Iran on Syrian soil--or rather, over Syrian skies. The cost, however, was painful: SA-5 ground-to-air missiles, among Russia's best, have been fired at IAF fighters before, but this time an F-16 was hit over Israel, its pilot and navigator bailed out, and it crashed near a village in the Western Galilee. Hezbollah, which in fact had nothing to do with the action all day, was quick to cheer: "Here is how we kill your elite."
It was Israel, however, which had the last word. To use game-theory language, it was possible for the IDF to sustain "escalation dominance" because the Syrians know all too well, even now, that in a full-scale war they would do very badly. Since the Syrian people are already brutally repressed, their vengeance on a weakened or defeated regime could be horrifying, if and when that happens. The same logic holds for Hezbollah. It was thus possible for Israel to launch a series of counterattacks, destroying both Iranian and Syrian targets. No response came from the "Camp of Resistance." Indeed, the Iranian regime did all it could to minimize its role in the drama and paint it as a Syrian job.
This actually indicates an Iranian vulnerability. As we saw in the recent demonstrations, Iran's presence in Syria is not popular among many at home, and of course it annoys and worries the Syrians and the West. This week, amidst these events in which Israel was involved, U.S. aircraft launched a major attack on Iranian-backed Syrian forces that were advancing on SDF positions near Dir a-Zor. Meanwhile, President Macron in France took a firm anti-Iranian line on the ballistic missile issue. Thus, Iran's position and ambitions could be increasingly at risk if the Syrians themselves grow to recognize the dangers entailed by serving Iran's interests too obediently.
It is here that Russia comes into play. Officially, President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have been very supportive about the legitimacy of Iran's presence in Syria, but what they whisper in Assad's ear may be rather different. What drives Israel's aggressive message, therefore, is not the Prime Minister's domestic constraints, but rather the need to persuade the Russians, in direct and detailed conversations (Patrushev, the Russian National Security Advisor, was in Israel recently with a large team; and the channel was kept open at the highest level during the crisis) that their client's real interests, and their own, differ fundamentally from those of Tehran. If the events of February 10 helped drive this message home, our short-term sense of loss may be outweighed by a long-term strategic gain.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.