Salih Isik Bora
The downing of an Israeli F-16 by Syrian air defenses on Feb. 10 led to speculations about the opening of a new front in the Civil War. Whether an escalation will take place immediately is uncertain but the region is currently set for the outbreak of an Israel-Iran proxy conflict.
It seems that just hours before the jet, an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace and was shut down. This incident of direct engagement demonstrates to what extent the Iranian military presence in Syria grew since the start of the Civil War.
In fact, while the Russians were carrying out airstrikes in support of the regime, Iran played an arguably more crucial role on the ground through its paramilitary proxies and the Revolutionary Guard. The survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime became dependent on Iran as the Islamic Republic built a strong presence in the country. The increased influence of Tehran in the region is certainly not limited to Syria. Since the 2003 American invasion, Iraq also came under a certain degree of Iranian influence even though to a lesser extent than Syria. More importantly for Israel, Iran is also a key player in Lebanon. In fact, the current government in Beirut is understandably seeking to distance itself from regional tensions.
However, Hezbollah, a militantly Shiite political party and paramilitary organization with ties to Tehran, is a crucial actor in Lebanese politics and effectively governs certain areas of the country. Hezbollah, while having its own interests, closely follows the regional agenda of Tehran in exchange for financial and military support. The organization fought in the Syrian Civil War and lost more than 2,000 members to this date. An existential reason and source of political prestige in the Muslim world for Hezbollah is its war against Israel, which it waged asymmetrically, often attacking civilian targets.
The two have repeatedly clashed since the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1982 as Tel Aviv attempted to root out the organization from South Lebanon. Iran’s increased presence in the Levant is a game changer because Tehran could potentially supply Hezbollah with much more sophisticated weaponry it could use against Israel. Notably, Hezbollah declared the downing of the Israeli jet marked the start of a “new strategic phase.” The repeated air strikes by the Israeli military in Syria seems to be targeting convoys and storage facilities possibly involved in such a transfer of weapons. Days before the downing of the fighter jet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior members of his administration visited bases in the Lebanese frontier. Al-Assad’s (and by extension Tehran’s) victories in the Syrian Civil War are of utmost strategic concern for Tel Aviv.
In fact, the same could be said about the Sunni Gulf monarchies. The recent incident involving Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation in Riyadh indicates the Saudi Kingdom is also concerned about the influence of Iran and attempts to contain it though negotiations with Beirut.
Needless to say, the recent escalation of tensions is also due to United States President Donald Trump’s administration. Two of the most memorable foreign policy moves by Trump were the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and the $350 billion (largest in US history) arms deal with Saudi Arabia. In the following months, Tel Aviv could rely on the unconditional backing of the Trump administration and the tacit support of the Sunni Gulf monarchies, to act preemptively against perceived threats by Iran and its allies. In the Israeli media, there have been talks of an imminent “Third Lebanon War” for quite some time now.
Last but not least, Russia’s stance is going to be defining the nature of the conflict between Israel and Iran. Some say Russia should act as mediator while more sinister analyses suggest Moscow could have a lot to gain from an Iran-Israel conflict.