There are lessons to be learned from Iran firing a drone into Israeli air space and Israel’s destruction of about half of Syria’s air defense capabilities in response:
- Iran is testing not only its capabilities abroad, but the reactions of its enemies and its security on the home front
- Israel is testing as well
- Russia’s appears unwilling to take on any more military activity than absolutely necessary and is unwilling to confront Iran.
- The US will stand by Israel, but may not be willing to push Iran out of Syria.
Iran’s goal is to operate militarily across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon – north of its adversaries Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. To this end, Iran “helped” move not only ISIS fighters, but tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs, from its westward path. Iran controls militias of more than 80,000 fighters in Syria. Israeli sources say there are 3,000 members of Iran’s IRGC commanding 9,000 Hizb’allah, and 10,000 “violent Shia militias recruited from across the Mideast, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The rest are Syrian.
Iran’s problem right now is at home. The government was surprised and more than a little bit worried about the rolling demonstrations across the country in January. The protests were broad-based, widespread and deliberately provocative. The image of an elderly Iranian woman climbing on a wall (with some difficulty) to remove and wave her hijab couldn’t have made the mullahs feel secure. And when a government has to look over its shoulder at its restive population, its room to maneuver abroad is constrained.
It was necessary, then, for the mullahs to have a victory, so they claimed one.
Just in time for the 39th-anniversary celebration of the Iranian revolution, Iran showed a variety of homemade, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, claiming the missiles can hit Israel from Iranian territory. As for the drone – Iran denied its existence and simply cheered its Syrian ally’s air defenses, claiming that Israel had lost its military edge in the region. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told Russian TV, “Reports of downing an Iranian drone flying over Israel and also Iran’s involvement in attacking an Israeli jet are so ridiculous… Iran only provides military advice to Syria.”
Qasemi ignored the part where the IDF allowed the drone was to enter Israel in order that it fall in Israeli territory where the pieces could be collected. Israel’s Air Force Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar told CNN, “To this day there have not been any (successful) infiltrations of Iranian UAVs and we will not tolerate any future infiltration attempts.”
While Israel would not have chosen to find Iran probing its defenses, Amos Yadlin, former chief of military intelligence, said:
The balance sheet was clear: Israel demonstrated its ability to defend its skies; it struck Iranian forces directly for the first time in Syria and exacted a price from Iran; it destroyed many Syrian SAM sites and left Damascus exposed to future attacks. (In the meantime) Iran is spreading conflicting facts and disinformation and so it seems that our enemies are lying to themselves and their people – a sign that they are in an awkward situation. The IDF demonstrated most impressive intel and strike capabilities. (But) the Iranians are determined to build a military power in the Levant and Israel is determined to stop them.
The Russians are retreating. Asked about the Iranian base near Palmyra and unwilling to contradict the Iranians — who had denied its existence despite all evidence — Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters: “No, I do not have such information.” He said Russia was urging everyone to avoid the escalation of tension. “We call on everyone to be calm, to prevent a very dangerous escalation in countries of the region.”
Russia will do what it must to keep its upgraded naval bases at Tartus and Latakia, and its new air base in Khmeiman. But Russia has no interest in deploying additional ground forces – and even less interest in fighting to remove the Iranians from Syria. Russia can live with whatever military configuration best ensures its bases and political influence in Damascus. President Vladimir Putin has no reason to quarrel with the mullahs, no reason to engage in combat with anyone in the theater.
Israel and Russia can and will continue to coordinate for the benefit of both. But if Israel thought Russia would protect it from Iran, Israel was wrong.
The United States
After losing a stealth drone to Iran in 2011, President Barack Obama said the U.S. had asked for it back. Iranian General Hossein Salami replied: “No nation welcomes other countries’ spy drones in its territory and no one sends back the spying equipment and its information back to the country of origin… This was an act of invasion and belligerence.”
Israel will no doubt quote Salami as it cleans up the debris from the Iranian drone fired into Israel and discovers how much was reverse-engineered and copied by the Iranians. [At least one analyst concluded that it does not have stealth capabilities.]
As for the current administration, President Donald Trump’s response to Israel’s attack on Syrian air defenses, in a tweet of course, was spot on: “Israel is a staunch ally of the United States. We support its right to defend itself from the Iranian-backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria. We call on Iran and its allies to cease provocative actions and work toward regional peace.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis added, “I think you’re all aware of when the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s] Quds Force leadership is in Iraq or in Syria. So, Syria, which has made no excuse for what they’re doing alongside Iran, when they are also providing throughput for Iran to give them weapons, including sophisticated weapons, to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israel has an absolute right to defend itself. They don’t have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue.”
This weekend’s confrontation was a battle in a larger war. So, the question remains for all concerned: Will Iran be permitted to build the platform in Syria for Israel’s destruction? If not, who — in what combination — will stop them?