On Monday, Hezbollah will mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Imad Mughniyeh, its legendary and ruthless military commander, whose absence, according to Israeli intelligence, is felt still today.
Mughniyeh – the mastermind of the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut (1983) as well as the attacks against the Israeli Embassy (1992) and the Jewish community center (1994) in Buenos Aires – was killed in Damascus on February 12, 2008, just after he finished a meeting with some of his Iranian patrons. The Mossad reportedly planted a bomb in the spare tire on the back of his Mitsubishi jeep.
The assassination of Mughniyeh as well as countless other operations and targeted killings attributed to Israel have been going on for years as part of the “Shadow War” between Israel and Iran and the proxies it funds and operates throughout the Middle East.
For the most part, until now, this war has been fought behind the scenes. Who needs to know, knows, and while some details occasionally make their way to the public domain, most do not.
What happened in northern Israel on Saturday is the beginning of the overt and direct war between Israel and Iran. The infiltration and interception of an Iranian drone over Israel, the downing of an Israeli F-16 and Israel’s retaliatory strikes against Syrian and Iranian targets that followed, are apparently just the opening scenes of a potentially wider conflict that could erupt if Iran continues trying to fortify its presence in the new Syria.
This was long in the making. Years ago, the Iranians came to the rescue of Bashar Assad in Syria and, together with Russia, ensured his survival. The problem is that they haven’t left. On the contrary – even though Assad is today in control of the majority of Syria, Iran is staying put and trying to establish an even greater presence within the country. On Saturday, we saw how determined it is to do just that.
It is too early to tell what lesson Iran has learned from the clash on Saturday. On the one hand, it succeeded in infiltrating a drone into Israel, even though it was ultimately intercepted. Its ally Syria succeeded in shooting down an Israeli fighter jet. On the other hand, Israel carried out its most widespread bombings in Syria since it destroyed almost all of Syria’s air defenses in 1982.
Israel’s retaliation was important for two reasons – it needed to neutralize the Syrian batteries that were used to down the F-16, but also to exact a price from Iran by bombing the control center used to operate the drone as well as other Iranian targets in Syria – the nature of which we will likely learn over the coming days.
The question will be whether Israel succeeded in boosting its deterrence. That depends on what Iran decides to do next. Will it keep on building its presence in Syria? Will it attempt another violation of Israel’s sovereignty down the road?
While the downing of a fighter jet is a heavy blow to Israeli morale, it was not totally unexpected and needs to be viewed through the wider context of what has been going on for the last five years. Israel has carried out more than 100 strikes in Syria, and in war there are always wins and losses. The fact that a plane hasn’t been shot down until now is the real story and speaks volumes of the IAF’s superior capabilities.
Finally, Israel needs to be concerned by Russia’s response to the events on Saturday. In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling for restraint and for all sides to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”
On the surface, it seems like Russia is taking Iran and Syria’s side and not Israel’s, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s best efforts to win over Vladimir Putin and his countless meetings with the Russian president. Beyond the ministry statement’s rhetorical significance, it could have practical consequences if Russia decides to deny Israel operational freedom over Syria in the future.
Israel will have to tread carefully and will not have a lot of choice but to accept Moscow’s directives. While Russia has allowed Iran to establish a presence in Syria it has – until now – prevented it from setting up large bases or a presence right along the border with Israel on the Golan Heights.
That could all still happen – and will depend on what Russia’s interests will be when it comes to the future of Syria and the wider Middle East.