Last weekend there was high drama on Israel’s border with Syria across the Golan Heights.
In the early hours of Saturday, an advanced Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace. Within minutes, the drone was intercepted and destroyed by an Israeli attack helicopter. The Israeli air force then conducted a strike inside Syria, destroying the mobile command vehicle that guided the drone. On its return, the Israeli F16 fighter jet was hit by Syrian air defence batteries. The jet crashed inside Israel and both crew members ejected. In retaliation, Israel struck against 12 further targets inside Syria, including three air defence batteries and four Iranian positions.
Given the amount of conflict already under way in the region, not least in Syria and Yemen, this may seem like a small incident. But its significance is much larger.
For several years now, Iran has been exploiting the opportunity of the Syrian civil war to build a presence along Israel’s northern borders. Iran has established a significant military footprint inside Syria, sending military advisers, “volunteer” Shia militias and hundreds of fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Indeed it was Iranian ground forces, coupled with Russian air power, that rescued Bashar al-Assad’s regime from near oblivion two years ago and have since restored it to the strongest force inside Syria.
Iran also has used its base inside Syria to funnel increasingly advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, its military proxy in Lebanon.
Hezbollah today is a formidable military force. It possesses tens of thousands of rockets, including several advanced, medium-range, Iranian-made missiles that can strike targets anywhere inside Israel. Though Israel frequently destroys Hezbollah-bound weapons transfers in transit, this effort depends entirely on the quality of intelligence. Inevitably, some shipments make it through.
Finally, Iran has been building military infrastructure and facilities inside Lebanon and Syria, designed to threaten Israel.
The command post that launched the Iranian drone was one such facility. Active attempts are under way to establish factory production lines for precision-guided missiles inside Lebanon.
Iran’s goal is the ability to project power and make its presence felt throughout the Middle East, and to create assets that can threaten Israel. It is seeking to build a land corridor stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean to do this. Israel, quite justifiably, is alarmed by Iran’s ambitions, and is taking steps to frustrate Iranian goals.
The two nations have been engaged in a quiet, low-simmer conflict for several months now. Israel frequently attacks Iranian targets inside Syria, including advanced weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. Iran, meanwhile, continues to probe Israel’s defences and test its readiness and red lines.
As Iranian efforts to entrench its presence become more advanced and more aggressive, the tempo of these clashes is accelerating and conflict is spilling out in the open, as it did last weekend.
As the Islamic State-Daesh presence in Syria is slowly vanquished, the question of what takes its place becomes more and more pressing, with outside powers increasingly intervening to shape the new Syrian landscape.
Russia wants to retain a client in Damascus and access to air and naval facilities. Turkey wants to prevent a de facto Kurdish state emerging along the length of its southern border. And Iran wants to retain a permanent military presence inside Syria.
Iran’s regional ambitions are alarming not just Israel but most of the Sunni Arab states in the region.
While crowds in Tehran, Damascus and Beirut were cheering the first downing of an Israeli fighter jet since 1982, you can be certain that in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and Abu Dhabi leaders were (albeit behind closed doors) cheering the fact Israel gave Iran a bloody nose.
This is the new fault line at work in the Middle East: a Sunni Arab-Israeli bloc seeking to constrain Iran from redrawing the regional map in its favour.
Though they lack formal diplomatic ties, behind the scenes there is a great deal of co-ordination under way between Israel and countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which suddenly find themselves sharing existential security interests.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ceased to be the defining feature of the region’s security. Instead it is Iran’s ambitions — and the moves and countermoves that accompany them — that are driving regional developments.
The Iranian nuclear deal, while it succeeded in constraining Tehran’s nuclear program, has not managed to alter Iranian ambitions or behaviour.
And this behaviour is threatening to ignite the next major conflict in the Middle East, one that will involve several major powers, and that inevitably will embroil Australia.
Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 13 February 2018