Israel, Iran and the war for Syria

For years, Israel and Iran have attacked each other with words and through their proxies. In Iran, calls for Israel’s destruction are routine, and support for militant groups in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip intentionally challenges Israel’s security. For Israel, meanwhile, “the year is 1938 and Iran is Germany.” Those are the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the second-longest serving leader in the country’s history. He has held his position for so long in part because of his ability to convince Israelis that he is best suited to lead Israel in this existential battle with Iran.

It is not surprising, then, that this past weekend’s events seem like a watershed moment. On Feb. 10, an Iranian drone crossed into Israeli territory and was shot down. Israel responded to the Iranian incursion by dispatching fighter jets to attack targets in Syria, including the Tiyas air base, near Palmyra, where the Iranian drone reportedly took off from. Syrian anti-air systems retaliated, striking an Israeli F-16, which crashed after making it back to Israeli territory. This prompted Israel to hit eight Syrian targets and four Iranian positions, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The war of words and proxies seems to be turning into a war between nations.

Lost in this sequence of events is the broader context. Israel is not the only country to have military aircraft shot down by enemy fire in Syria recently. Last week, Russia intensified airstrikes in Idlib province after al-Qaida-linked militants brought down a Russian fighter jet. On the same day the Israeli F-16 went down, Syrian Kurdish fighters reportedly brought down a Turkish military helicopter that was part of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria. Israel, Russia and Turkey all lost military aircraft during operations in Syria in the past week, and all three are currently working at cross purposes. The Israel-Iran showdown is about far more than just Israel and Iran. It is one aspect of a much larger war for regional power that is being waged more openly with each passing day.

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