In the wake of their success in downing an Israeli fighter jet and infiltrating a drone into Israel’s skies, Iran’s mullahs and the Assad regime in Syria might get reckless and do something stupid.
That’s why it was so important for Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to retaliate immediately by carrying out its most widespread bombings inside Syria since 1982. Netanyahu was also wise to follow up with unambiguous statements about Israel’s refusal to acquiesce to a situation in which Syria, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah threaten Israel.
Speaking to ministers Sunday ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said, “We do not seek war, but we will do everything that’s needed to defend ourselves.”
“The IDF is the strongest army in the Middle East, and thankfully so, because we are facing many challenges,” the prime minister said.
Making it clear through actions and words that Israel will not tolerate Iranian encroachment is critical. History has taught us that needless wars break out when belligerent countries run by authoritarian regimes overestimate their own strength and underestimate the strength of their opponents – and when the response to these bellicose nations is muted or reconciliatory.
The most obvious example of this dynamic is the chain of events that led up to the outbreak of World War II.
But there are other cases, as noted by war historian Victor Davis Hanson in a recent piece for National Review that focused on the standoff between the US and North Korea.
In 1950, America’s failure to make it clear to North Korea that South Korea was under its sphere of protection most likely led North Korea to invade.
In the 1980s, British words – including the use of the Argentinian term Malvinas by British politicians – and actions, the withdrawal of a navy ship from the area, might have spurred Argentina’s dictatorship to launch a war over the Falkland Islands.
In 1990, US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie and the US State Department failed to communicate to Saddam Hussein their readiness to defend Kuwait, which might have been an added factor in the Iraqi tyrant’s decision to invade.
The lesson that Iran and Syria are liable to learn from this weekend’s clashes is that they have the power to seriously challenge Israel on its northern border. Their ability to infiltrate Israeli airspace with a drone might make them believe they can do it again on a larger scale.
They might also place undue weight on their anti-aircraft abilities. Instead of looking at the dozens of Israeli air attacks carried out against targets in Syria in recent years, without a single Israeli aircraft downed as proof of their substandard aerial defense capabilities, Iran and Syria might be artificially emboldened by a single incident.
Hezbollah said on Saturday, for instance, that the downing of the Israeli F-16 jet by the Syrian Army marked the “start of a new strategic phase,” which would limit Israeli exploitation of Syrian airspace. “Today’s developments mean the old equations have categorically ended,” the Lebanese Shi’ite group said in a statement.
Therefore it is absolutely imperative that Hezbollah, Iran and Syria be disowned of this distorted perception of reality.
In addition to Israeli words and actions, the US plays an important role in maintaining Israel’s deterrence. That’s why it was important to hear unequivocal statements from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon defending Israel’s right to protect itself.
Complicating matters, however, is Russia. Although Israel regularly coordinates with Moscow on military matters pertinent to Syria, ultimately Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime and with Iran against the Sunni opposition forces in Syria could create a situation in which Israeli and Russian interests clash.
Russia hinted at its displeasure with Israel’s air attacks when it said in a Foreign Ministry statement, “It is absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian soldiers that are in the Syrian Arab Republic on the invitation of the legal government to assist in the fight against terrorism.”
If it wants to avoid a full-blown conflict in Syria or in Lebanon between Israel and Iranian-backed forces, Russia must take a more proactive role. Instead of warning Israel, Moscow needs to stop Iranian belligerence before it’s too late.