Paul R. Pillar
Syria Russia Iran, Middle East
The cauldron of intervention known as the Syrian war has recently become even more likely to boil over than it was just a few weeks ago. There are two immediate dangers of escalation.
One is the outbreak of another war between Israel and its neighbors. A reminder of this danger has come from events that began when Israel said it shot down an Iranian drone that had entered its airspace. Israeli F-16s then attacked a command center in Syria, during which Syrian air defenses downed one of the Israeli warplanes (a rare event for Israel). Israel subsequently launched a much more widespread set of aerial attacks within Syria. The Israelis have conducted scores of attacks in Syria over the last five years, but this most recent assault may have been the largest Israeli attack there since the 1980s.
A new war involving Israel would surely also involve Lebanese Hezbollah. There is no indication that Hezbollah seeks such a war. The group has incurred significant costs by participating in fighting within Syria and has many wounds to lick. Its leaders still have regrets about the brinksmanship that last got Hezbollah entangled in a war with Israel. Even though it could get in some hits with cross-border rocket fire, the group’s leaders know that in a new clash it would get badly bloodied by its militarily more capable foe.
The inclinations of the Israeli government are less apparent. Its clear military superiority would make it the winner on most scorecards in a new war. The Israeli itch to escalate was in full view this past week. The reported Iranian drone did not, according to the Israeli account, get off a shot, and it may not even have been armed. A fresh war with Iran’s ally Hezbollah also would serve for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu the purpose of emboldening anti-Iran U.S. hawks and rallying them to isolate and punish Iran even more, perhaps tipping the Trump administration into repudiation of the agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program.