It was not easy to trust the news reports that Syrian air-defence missiles targeted an Israeli F16-fighter jet and downed it in response to Israel shooting down an Iranian drone that, according to the Israelis, had entered their airspace. This happened, though, and a wide-scale war in the region was seen as inevitable, but neither Israel nor its main ally, the United States, are interested in such a conflict.
According to Israel, its response was the “largest and most significant strike in Syria since 1982.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be trying to de-escalate the tension and avoid going into battle, in both his actions and remarks; so did the US. “Our policy is clear,” Netanyahu claimed. “Israel will defend itself against any aggression and any attempt to violate its sovereignty.” Although he took advantage of the sympathy generated by the incidents, all he did was order a strike similar to dozens that Israel has carried out in the past, which he knows very well do not prompt more than a few hollow comments from the Syrians and their Iranian allies.
While he accused Iran of being behind the shooting down of the Israeli jet and said that he would defend Israeli “steadfastly” against any Iranian attacks, at the same time he stressed that “Israel seeks peace” with Iran. This is the first time that Netanyahu has ever made such a remark regarding the Iranian issue. He is known for calling for the destruction of Iran and calling for the US to scrap a “peace” deal with Tehran.
Furthermore, it is possible that Netanyahu orchestrated the claim that the drone violated Israeli airspace in order to persuade his people that Israel did not come under attack by Syria or Iran when the Israeli jet was downed, but that its adversaries responded to an attack by the “cautious” Israeli air-defence system, which downed an enemy drone that violated Israel’s sovereignty. The message was clear: in such circumstances, the Israelis must expect some losses.
However, the Syrians and the Iranians denied that one of their drones crossed into Israeli airspace. In a TV interview, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi described reports of the downing of an Iranian drone flying over Israel and Iran’s involvement in attacking an Israeli jet as “ridiculous.” Brigadier General Hossein Salami, of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, told the Iranian news agency Tasnim, “We cannot confirm this report on the drone because Israelis are liars.” The Syrians, along with Hezbollah, also called the Israeli claim about shooting down a drone “a lie.”
When Netanyahu spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to give them the message that Israel would not tolerate Iran’s violations, he provided more evidence that he does not want a war with Syria and Iran. Prior to this incident, which was big for Israel, Netanyahu had attacked targets in Syria without consulting anyone; in fact, he did so again on this occasion and prompted no Syrian response. Speaking to Russia and the US made it look as if he was asking them to intervene and say, “Maintain self-control, please.”
If Netanyahu wants to start a war against Syria or Iran, now is the best time to do so because Syria has been depleted by the civil war and the fight against terrorist organisations for seven years. Iran has been involved in proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, so it is also feeling the pinch. Moreover, the military capabilities of Iran and Syria are way below those of nuclear-armed Israel, equipped with the latest military technology.
According to former US envoy Dennis Ross, the Israeli military believed that President Donald Trump would translate his promises about deterring Iran into something on the ground. “Netanyahu,” he said, “has now travelled to Russia seven times in the last two years to see President Vladimir Putin, not simply to ensure there is no conflict between Israel and the Russian forces in Syria but also to try to persuade him to contain the spread of Iranian military infrastructure there. The former has worked, but the latter has not.”
As Israel will be alone in any military adventure in the Middle East, Netanyahu has been working to de-escalate the tension arising over this latest issue with Syria and Iran. Ross proved this before the incident with the downed jet even happened.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.