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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Editorial: Lessons from the Iranian Incursion

On Feb. 10, an Israeli F-16 was struck by Syrian anti-aircraft fire during Israel’s response to an Iranian drone that violated Israeli airspace. (Credit Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Israeli leaders have long warned that Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria could lead to a military confrontation. On Feb. 10, Iran provocatively carried out perhaps its most brazen incursion ever into Israeli territory: Iranian forces based in Syria launched a military drone into Israeli airspace. An Israeli Air Force (IAF) Apache helicopter intercepted and destroyed the unmanned aerial vehicle.

In direct response to Iran’s provocation, a formation of IAF F-16 fighter jets destroyed the Iranian command-and-control center used to operate the drone. As the fighter jets returned to Israel, Syrian anti-aircraft forces damaged one, leading the pilots to eject over northern Israel. This incident was the first time since 1982 that an Israeli fighter jet was destroyed by enemy action.

Israel retaliated for the loss of its fighter with its most significant engagement in Syria in decades. The IAF destroyed 12 Syrian and Iranian military targets in Syria, including a significant part of Syria’s air defense system. As of this writing, thankfully, there have been no further exchanges of fire. 

Iran’s aggressive action follows a dramatic increase in Iranian advanced military hardware and personnel reaching Syria. Iran is attempting to leverage its support for Syria’s brutal regime, amidst the chaos of the Syrian civil war, to establish a second front against Israel. This endeavor augments Iran’s decades-long effort to establish itself along the Israel-Lebanon border via support for its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. Iran’s strategic goal is to exercise control along a crescent from Tehran to Beirut—a direct land bridge from Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. Israel’s firm response to Iran’s probe demonstrates Israel’s determination to prevent Iran from entrenching itself on its border.

America’s support for Israel will prove critical if Israel—and its Sunni Arab neighbors—are to prevent Iran from dominating the Levant. U.S. statements following the Feb. 10 events have been positive. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said: “Israel has an absolute right to defend themselves. They don’t have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue.” In a statement, the U.S. Department of State added, “The United States is deeply concerned about today's escalation of violence over Israel's border and strongly supports Israel's sovereign right to defend itself.” Numerous members of Congress also reaffirmed Israel’s inherent right to defend itself and its citizens against such threats.

In addition to its verbal support for Israel’s actions, the United States should support Israel in achieving its minimal objectives vis-à-vis Iran in Syria: (1) ensuring that Iran cannot establish a permanent military presence in Syria; (2) pushing Hezbollah and other Iranian allies at least 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Israeli border; and (3) limiting arms transfers and the construction of Iranian arms factories for Hezbollah. Washington must also further help ensure that Israel continues to receive the vital security assistance it requires to defend itself by itself against an increasingly assertive Iran bent on regional dominance.

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report