Fire and smoke rise after a mortar shell hit an electricity generator in Syria, on Feb. 10, 2018. Ammar Safarjalani/PA Images. All rights reserved.Israel's aerial strike against Iranian and regime targets in Syria on 10 February reinforces concern that a new front is opening in the Middle East's many-sided conflicts. The risk of outright confrontation between Israel and Iran has increased, even as Turkey, Russia, Kurdish forces, and the United States are engaged in further action to the north. That so many combatants are involved, with different agendas, means that further escalation is an ever present possibility.
The details of the Israel-Iran episode show how unsteady the strategic situation now is. It began when Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces launched a drone from Tiyas airbase, which is about 100 kilometres east of Homs in west-central Syria. The drone was tracked across the Israeli border, then shot down by an Israel airforce (IAF) attack-helicopter. Eight Israeli strike-aircraft retaliated almost at once by destroying the command-centre deep inside Syria. A Syrian anti-aircraft missile hit one of these F-16 planes as it returned to Israel, seriously injuring one of the crew.
This incident, the first time that the IAF has admitted losing a plane since the large-scale invasion of Lebanon (Operation Peace for Galilee) in 1982, helps explain the decision to launch multiple raids on the Syrian air-defence system. Even so, these fell short of Israel's usual policy of massive retaliation against any attack, an approach sometimes explained with reference to Israel being “impregnable in its insecurity”: a regional military superpower that feels surrounded by enemies and thus has to respond with an iron fist (see "Israel's security trap", 5 August 2010).
Why, on this occasion, was Israel so (relatively) restrained? An informed source, cited in the same New York Times article, cites an angry intervention by Vladimir Putin. Israel's raids were uncomfortably close to Russian forces, was the president's message to his erstwhile partner, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu (see "Putin's Phone Call With Netanyahu Put End to Israeli Strikes in Syria", Haaretz, 15 February 2018). Here, Putin’s wider motive is obvious enough; Russia has benefited greatly from its support for Bashar al-Assad's regime, but a full-scale war would put all its gains at risk.
Russia clearly wants to avoid a thickening imbroglio in the Middle East. Memories of the Red Army's grinding war in Afghanistan in the 1980s still loom large. Moscow has also found Crimea and eastern Ukraine an expensive burden, and needs to contain not expand its Syrian commitment. Moreover, Putin must manage his own imminent re-election smoothly while keeping a wary eye on potential triggers of domestic discontent.
A further worry here is that Russia's casualties in Syria seem to be rising. In a single example, the Associated Press reports the death of four Russian civilian contractors in a US airstrike which had been mounted to protect anti-Assad Syrian militias from an assault by pro-Assad groups (see Vladimir Isachenkov, "Russian contractors killed by US strike in Syria", Military Times, 14 February 2018). Some western outlets claim that the losses of military and contractor personnel run well into the hundreds. Even a more considered Reuters report indicates that at least forty Russians have died in recent months.
Moscow's strategic calculations in the Middle East will also include intelligence about the swift if mainly hidden expansion of American bases in Iraq, Jordan and especially Syria. Knowledge of their location stems, remarkably, from the records of a widely available smartphone fitness app used by US military trainers in the region. Jane’s Defence Weekly uses this data to reveal thirteen previously undisclosed bases: two in Syria, four in Iraq, and seven in Jordan (two of which are right on the border with Syria).
Jordan has economic troubles of its own that more than match Russia's. A decrease in financial support from Gulf states means the authorities are facing a $700 million budget deficit, and have taken the deeply unpopular route of raising taxes on basic foodstuffs, including bread, by 50-100%. In Israel too, the government's domestic problems – including legal action against Netanyahu over corruption charges – are an unavoidable element in the regional mess. A hawkish prime minister might well view a crisis with Iran as an opportunity for diversion. Jordan's political options are fewer, but its and its people's voice cannot be discounted.
Such internal dynamics, peripheral to the wider trends as they can seem, may yet have an impact. At present, two more basic realities overshadow them. One is familiar: the deep Israel-Iran antagonism. The other is quite new: the degree of penetration of Russian and US forces into the region's least stable corners. That penetration is now spilling over into fighting that near embroils these forces. An Iran-Israel conflict that erupts over Syria could quickly spin out of control and turn Moscow and Washington into direct protagonists. By comparison, the incident of 10 February would be a mere skirmish.