What side will Moscow take in the simmering Israel-Iran war?


National Post, 21 February 2018

Russia is now the governing military power in Syria. Can Putin stay aloof as hostilities between the Israelis and Tehran heat up?

TIBERIUS, Israel – For the first time in more than 35 years an Israeli fighter jet was shot down, not far from this northern Israeli city. In 1982 it happened during the first Lebanon war. Ten days ago it happened during, well, what exactly? The Syrian civil war? The Israeli-Iranian war, which is not a war, at least a declared one? The Israeli war with the allies of Russia?

Such is the complexity of Israel’s northern border, where the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the Iranians and the Russians are all active.

On Feb. 9 an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace via Jordan, launched from a Syrian airbase. The Israelis shot it down; at the Munich security conference on Sunday Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, dramatically held up part of the drone during his speech, mocking the Iranian foreign minister: “Do you recognize this? You should, it’s yours!”

Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as a “cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response.” Syria is in reality a kind of deadly circus. And Zarif could well afford to be dismissive. Iran lost a drone, but made the point that its presence at Syrian airbases is secure enough now that it can launch attacks from them. Iran’s proxies have been active in Lebanon and Syria for a long time, but now it has acted on its own.

Afters shooting down the drone, the Israeli air force immediately sent fighter jets into Syria to pound Iranian targets, something it has done often. This time though, Syria returned a fearsome barrage of anti-aircraft fire, shooting down one jet as it was heading back to Israel. It crashed in northern Israel, the pilots having survived after ejecting.

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