Iran expanding control of territory across Syria

Iran and Israel are on a collision course over Tehran’s expanding footprint in Syria, raising the odds of a direct clash between the region’s two military heavyweights that could quickly draw in other combatants.

With Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Iran’s most potent military ally, emboldened by their success in upholding Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israel is growing more and more wary of being attacked by missiles not just from southern Lebanon but also from inside Syria.

Israel has been sporadically bombing Hezbollah positions in Syria for the past three years. But the situation reached new heights this month when what Israel said was an Iranian armed stealth drone was intercepted and downed over Israel and an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was in turn shot down by anti-aircraft fire from inside Syria during a retaliatory airstrike.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif traded belligerent taunts at a major security conference in Munich this week, with the hard-line Mr. Netanyahu brandishing a piece of the downed drone and warning that Tehran “should not test Israel’s resolve.”

“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”

Mr. Zarif mocked the tough words and noted the Israeli leader’s political problems at home. Calling Mr. Netanyahu’s presentation a “cartoonish circus,” the Iranian minister said the downing of the Israeli fighter jet had crumbled Israel’s “invincibility.”

Hezbollah, which the U.S. has listed as “foreign terrorist organization” since the late 1990s, said in a statement after the downing of the Israeli F-16 that the struggle had reached a “new strategic phase” aimed at curtailing Israeli’s incursions into Syria.

With Mr. Assad’s government, backed by Russian and Iranian military muscle moving ever closer to victory in the Syrian civil war, Israeli planners also warn that Iran and Hezbollah are trying to shape the strategic landscape to their advantage.

“In the northern arena, there is a change coming due to the strategic developments in the Syrian internal fighting. The Iranians and Hezbollah, who are backing [Mr. Assad], are getting freed up to start building their power,” Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, head of Israeli Defense Forces operations, told Israeli Army Radio this week, adding that the prospect of a war with Iran this year was higher than it had been in a long time.

Richard C. Baffa, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp., said recent events underscored “the fragility of the situation and how easily miscalculation could lead to rapid escalation.”

Mr. Baffa said in an interview that neither side seeks an escalation, but he sees signs that if a war does break out, it will be much larger than the border clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

Hezbollah is able to maintain a “broader northern front that includes Syria,” he said, and the group “has far more missiles and rockets that can target Israeli infrastructure and population centers.”

At the same time, he said, the perception that Hezbollah won in 2006 by “not losing” points to the “fact that the Israelis will see the need for a decisive win” should things escalate.

Israeli officials fear Iran will demand a permanent presence inside Syria, the price it will exact for its efforts in support of Mr. Assad.

“Iran is determined to build a military presence and military capabilities in Syria the way they built Hezbollah in Lebanon for many, many years,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate.

Mr. Yadlin, who spoke on a conference call hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Wednesday, said further escalation would pit Israeli forces against an Iran-backed alliance that may even include elements of the Syrian military.

Source » washingtontimes

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