Escalating hostilities in Middle East signal new conflicts
Monday 12/February/2018 - 10:40 AM
"Financial Times" newspaper- By David Gardner:
The downing of an Israeli warplane by Syrian air defences، after Israel said it brought down an Iranian drone launched from Syria into Israeli airspace، is the sort of lightning bolt that signals the alarming probability of a new regional war spinning out of the vortex of the Syrian civil war.
Any new war between Israel and Iranian forces and their allies، will not start now. But all the elements needed to ignite it are in place and on present trends it looks inexorable.
The Israeli air force، long the lord of the Middle Eastern skies، is reckoned to have last lost a plane in 1982، the year Israel invaded Lebanon at the height of its neighbour’s civil war. This weekend it retaliated with a dozen air strikes inside Syria، including four that it said hit Iranian targets.
Starting in 2011، as part of the chain of uprisings optimistically dubbed the Arab Spring، Syria’s civil war has sucked in regional and global actors from Turkey to Iran، and the US to Russia. The intervention on the ground of Iran and allies such as Hizbollah، the powerful Lebanese paramilitary force that emerged out of Israel’s 1982 invasion، aligned with Russia’s air force since 2015، saved the minority regime of Bashar al-Assad from succumbing to a mainly Sunni rebellion. Seven years on، President Assad remains in office more than in power، as the ward of two states: Russia and Iran. Russia controls most of the air space of western Syria. Iran، through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps، Hizbollah، and Iraqi and Afghan Shia militia، is consolidating a presence on the ground — part of Tehran’s drive to build a Shia Arab axis and land bridge from the Zagros Mountains to the Mediterranean. Israel regards this as strategically unacceptable.
Israel، at war with Hizbollah episodically for more than 30 years، has avoided intervening directly in Syria’s war. But since 2013 it has carried out more than 100 air strikes inside Syria it says were aimed at Iranian arms destined for Hizbollah and، recently، what it described as an Iranian base. Israel، moreover، has said it cannot and will not accept two eventualities.
First، if Iran and Hizbollah establish a permanent military presence in Syria، that is a casus belli، since it would open up a new front against Israel، alongside the Lebanese border to its north. Second، since Hizbollah fought it to a standstill over five weeks in 2006، the Lebanese militia has built a large arsenal of Iranian-supplied rockets that can reach deep into Israel. Israel says this stockpile — and missile manufacturing facilities it says it has detected in Lebanon — exceed its strategic tolerance.
This، as well as the game of chicken going on close to Israel’s borders، makes an eventual war more likely than not، turning Syria — and probably Lebanon — into a battlefield between Israel and Iran.
Such a war would be orders of magnitude more destructive than the existing mayhem in Syria’s crowded skies and contested territory: aside from the downed Israeli jet، a Russian plane was shot down by jihadis in Idlib and a Turkish helicopter was destroyed by Syrian Kurdish fighters (backed by the US but under attack by Nato ally Turkey) in north-west Syria. All this has happened in the past week.
Also last week and further east in the Euphrates valley، US air strikes obliterated a pro-Assad force، partly made up of Afghan Shia militia and Arab tribal fighters، as it moved against Washington’s Kurdish allies.
For the moment، neither Israel nor Iran look ready to add exponentially to this chaos. Benjamin Netanyahu، Israel’s prime minister، heads an ultra-right nationalist coalition but has always been more risk-averse than his bellicose rhetoric suggests. Iran’s clergy-dominated regime، no rhetorical slouch، will defend but probably not wish to risk its regional gains.
There is still the risk of miscalculation. Israel and Iran both believe in the utility of force to achieve their ends. Israel، moreover، is being egged on by Donald Trump، the US president، who looks set to undermine the nuclear restraint accord Iran agreed with six global powers in 2015; and encouraged surreptitiously by a Saudi Arabian-led Sunni Arab camp that is trying to roll back Iranian influence in the Levant and the Gulf.
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson tours the Middle East next week، and will presumably urge restraint on Israel. But it is Russia، which under President Vladimir Putin has nurtured relations with Israel even as it has aligned with its enemy Iran، which is the only player with the capability to talk the two antagonists down from what could otherwise become a mechanical escalation towards war.