If the US and Russia don’t exert pressure, the affair of the captured drone could conceivably trigger war
This past weekend an Iranian drone that had penetrated Israeli airspace was shot down. Israel responded with an air strike on the facility in Syria that commanded the drone, but the mission cost Israel an F-16 fighter jet.
It remains unclear what Iran was trying to do with its drone, but in as region forever torn by tension and suspicion, Israeli’s swift and tough reaction was a foregone conclusion. The most worrisome aspect to this tit-for-tat exchange is that it could render the already dysfunctional Middle East much more volatile.
No one can say that escalation in Iran-Israel hostilities was unexpected. Trouble has been brewing for years, and it mounted with Iran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. Tehran has expanded its influence across the region to counter the grand designs of the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s ambitions in Syria and Lebanon – the so-called Shia belt – include the deployment of 10,000 Shia militia into Syria and air and military bases and weapons factories.
These activities are designed to strengthen Iran’s main client, Hezbollah. It is not apparent where Israel sees the red line that mustn’t be crossed, but it surely regards this expansion as coming too close to its border. In recent years Israel has carried out at least 100 attacks against Iranian positions inside Syria, yet has barely dented its ambitions.
Russia also backs Assad’s regime, while the US supports the rebel opposition, including the Syrian Kurds who flushed Islamic State fighters from various parts of the country.
Turkey on the other hand sees Syrian Kurds as a threat and has attacked their positions. With Russia and Iran’s help, Assad has succeeded in regaining territory from the rebels and ISIS, reviving his confidence.
But he will not be confident enough to try and take advantage of the Israeli jet’s downing and seek confrontation with Tel Aviv. That would not serve Russia’s interests. If anything, all-out war between Israel and Syria would overshadow the very Russian intervention that gave Assad a new lease on life. The same can be said for Iran. War would undermine its gains and advances in Syria and its foothold in Lebanon.
Antagonising Iran further could result in Tehran unleashing Hezbollah in Lebanon, possibly sparking all-out war with Israel. Israeli citizens could expect thousands of rockets to be raining down on their towns and cities.
In short, everyone in the region is better off avoiding major escalation. And because no one wants a wider war, the next logical step is to move towards a stable arrangement. No such arrangement is possible unless the major powers and sponsors – particularly Russia and the US – are willing to play their parts. Oddly enough, this is where the much-ballyhooed friendship between Presidents Donald Trump of the US and Vladimir Putin of Russia could come in handy.
Is Trump willing to use his personal rapport with Putin to convince him that Iran and Syria must be restrained?
Even if Trump were and if he succeeded into doing so, the battle over Syria and the Middle East will not be resolved anytime soon.
A step towards sustainable peace can only come about when major powers like the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia place the interests of Syria and its people over their individual selfish agendas.