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The operation that signals a new phase in Israel's proxy war with Iran

The Syrian civil war is far from over. Now is when neighbours could be sucked in

    The F-16's crash site in northern Israel
    The F-16's crash site in northern Israel (Photo: Getty Images)

    As a tense calm returned to the skies over northern Israel on Shabbat afternoon, each side took stock of its losses. 

    Israel had taken the most visible hit: an F-16I fighter jet lay smashed on the hills of Galilee, its wounded pilots evacuated to Rambam Hospital after bailing out on time. Not since 1982 had Syria’s air defence units succeeded in shooting down an Israeli aircraft. The other side’s losses were hidden from view.

    Iran’s newest and most advanced drone — the Saeqeh, a clone of the CIA’s RQ-170 spy-plane — had been detected and tracked from the moment it took off near Palmyra.

    Shortly after entering Israeli airspace, it was shot down and destroyed. An hour later, it was the command and control centre in Palmyra that was on the receiving end of Israeli-guided missiles.

    Next, it was the turn of the Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries involved in shooting down the F-16I. They were targeted in raids as well.

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    Step by step: the drama on Shabbat morning
    Step by step: the drama on Shabbat morning (Illustration: Fiona Tarbet)

    Israeli air force officers said that nearly half of the Assad regime’s air-defences had been wiped out in the space of minutes. The loss of a valuable aircraft was celebrated on the streets of Damascus but it was a clear win for Israeli air power.

    Beyond the point-scoring of this latest round of warfare, there are disturbing implications arising from the six-hour aerial battle.

    For the first time in the history of the secret war between Israel and Iran, which since the early 1980s has been fought by Iran’s proxies, the Islamic Republic used one of its own aircraft to launch an act of war against Israel, and Israel responded directly against its base and personnel.

    It is still not clear what the Iranians were hoping to achieve with this unprecedented move and whether they are planning to repeat it in the near future.

    This was not the first time in recent months that the Assad regime tried launching missiles against Israeli aircraft carrying out strikes on Syrian soil.

    Related: Benhan Ben Taleblu on the extent of Iranian entrenchment in Syria

    Israel has responded by attacking those launchers in the past, but a conflagration of this scale between the two neighbours has not happened for 35 years.

    Israel intends to continue striking targets in Syria when it believes its interests are jeopardised by arms shipments to Hezbollah, but it will now proceed with increased caution.

    Perhaps the most worrying development is that the ground rules are now being set by the Kremlin. Israel’s ally, the United States, is almost totally absent from the scene.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a good relationship with President Vladimir Putin. The two men respect each other and spoke over the phone following Saturday’s events.

    But Mr Putin now has the upper hand in Syria and, for now, intends to allow both Israel and Iran to continue operating in the country, even though he has reined in some of the more ambitious Iranian plans to establish new bases there. But if Mr Putin fails to contain the fallout from this round or is less interested in doing so next time, it is worth remembering that it is Israel that has a joint border with Syria, not Russia or Iran.

    Despite optimistic predictions in 2017, the Syrian war is far from over and could now be reaching its most dangerous stage — when Syria’s neighbours and other regional players all get sucked in.

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