[Originally published under the headline "Israel's 70th Independence Day clouded by rumbling of conflict with Iran"]
Iran — Israel’s greatest adversary in the region — has been growing in influence in the Middle East and its allies wield significant power in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
In November 2017, Israel warned that Iran was building permanent military bases in Syria; satellite photos showed such a base south of Damascus. Airstrikes against that base came weeks later. Then, in February, an Iranian drone launched from the T-4 base in Syria flew into Israeli airspace and was downed by an Israeli helicopter. Subsequent airstrikes against targets in Syria led to the downing of one Israeli F-16.
The number of confrontations with Iran in Syria have led to a kind of routine in Israel. The public has become accustomed to stories about the Iranian threat. Israel officially remains mum on any airstrikes, although its former air force commander, Amir Eshel, has said there were more than 100 strikes in the past five years.
This is more than a shadow war. For the first time, Iran published photos of those killed in the April 9 raid and Russia has become more critical of Israel’s actions, two signs that tensions are emerging from the shadows.
Until now, Iran has not responded to raids on bases in Syria. This is likely because Iran is a close ally of Damascus and it must balance its desire to build influence in Syria with knowledge that a wider war with Israel could threaten its ally, Syria. Senior Israeli security officials have threatened that if Iran strikes at Israel, it will topple Syria’s government.
Russia has a role to play, since it doesn’t want its allies in Iran and Syria imperiled. And Iran’s goal is not just to harass Israel; it also wants to use Syria as a conduit of influence to Lebanon, where it supplies Hezbollah with weapons, training and assistance.
The Iran-Israel war of words about Syria, therefore, is played out as carefully as a game of chess. For the Israeli public, this means that the clouds of war hover over — but haven’t darkened — the Independence Day celebration. Still, there lurks the risk that increasing tension between the United States and Russia, or any slight miscalculation among all the players jockeying their next moves, could lead to greater conflict as Iran seeks ways to retaliate against Israel.
Seth J. Frantzman is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum.