Years of rising tensions between Israel and Iran exploded Friday night when Iranian forces based in Syria sent a drone over the border into the Golan Heights. As Tony Badran and Jonathan Schanzer write in the Wall Street Journal:
On Friday night Iran dispatched a drone from Syria that penetrated Israeli airspace in the Golan Heights. Israel destroyed it with an Apache helicopter. Then on Saturday Israel sent eight F-16s across the border to strike the airfield in the Homs governorate, called the T-4 base, where the drone originated, as well as a handful of other Iranian targets. Although the mission was a success, one F-16 was shot down by Syrian antiaircraft fire—though the pilot made it back to Israel, where he and his navigator ejected successfully.
Most Middle Eastern countries are status quo powers. That means they are more or less satisfied with existing borders and the current balance of power. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a revisionist power, seeking to undermine regional order by exporting its Islamic revolution—and Iranian hegemony—across international lines. Its premier special operations unit, the lethal Quds Force, has turned Syria into a hotbed of paramilitary activity and heavy ordinance under the watchful gaze of its Russian allies.
Again, Badran and Schanzer write:
The Iranians have been exploiting the chaos of the Syrian civil war to build up military assets there that target Israel, all the while sending advanced weaponry to Lebanon by way of Damascus, also under the fog of war. The Israelis have been vigilant; they have destroyed some of this hardware in Syria with one-off strikes. In December they struck an Iranian base southwest of Damascus, some 30 miles from the Golan Heights. But they had never entered Syria with the kind of overwhelming force seen on Saturday morning.
Iran acts like a typical revisionist power in trying to expand its influence around the region as much as possible. Its guerrilla activity in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen remain a fundamental source of instability. For this reason, status quo powers like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt see Tehran’s meddling as the most serious threat to regional peace.
For Israel, the target of near-constant Iranian threats of annihilation, the build-up of heavy weaponry along its northern border presents an even greater existential concern.
Leaders of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed faction in Lebanon, celebrated the downing of the Israeli F-16 as “the beginning of a new strategic era.” They are probably right. Israel’s destruction of large portions of the Syrian air defense system will set Iran back for the time being, but tensions will almost certainly spike again soon. The game is changing.
For now, the border between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights remains the most important border in the Middle East—a veritable dam holding back the tidal wave of Iranian ambition. The United States should continue to support Israel as it seeks to contain that ambition, oppose Iranian provocations, and protect innocent lives from the bedlam that Iran seeks to unleash.
Lord knows the Middle East doesn’t need another war.
Robert Nicholson is the Executive Director of The Philos Project and the Co-Publisher of Providence.
Photo Credit: Israeli Air Force “Sufa” planes, also known as F-16I, flying in formation on May 10, 2011. By Israel Defense Forces, via Flickr.