Israel and Iran initiated their largest confrontation in Syria since the start of the Syrian Civil War. Israel intercepted and destroyed an Iranian UAV that reportedly violated its airspace over the Golan Heights on February 10. Israel later conducted airstrikes targeting the drone’s control vehicle at the T4 Airbase in Eastern Homs Province - a known joint basing area for the Russo-Iranian Coalition. Syrian Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) engaged the jets during their return and successfully shot down an Israeli F-16 over Northern Israel in the first such combat loss for the Israeli Air Force since the 1982 Lebanon War. Israel in response launched a “large-scale attack” against at least a dozen targets near Damascus including three air defense batteries and four military positions for Iran in Syria. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) characterized the escalation as “more than confrontation but less than war” and warned its adversaries against “playing with fire” by allowing Iran to launch attacks against Israel via Syria. Israel nonetheless stressed that it is “not looking to escalate the situation”. Russia also issued a press release that urged all parties to “exercise restraint” but stressed the need for “unconditional respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria.
Israel and the Russo-Iranian Coalition are poised for future conflict over the Golan Heights. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have entrenched a network of foreign and domestic proxies across Syria under the umbrella of the Russian Armed Forces. Iran and Hezbollah have also exploited the terms of the de-escalation zone brokered by Russia, Jordan, and the U.S. in Southern Syria to further develop their military infrastructure along the Golan Heights. Israel and the U.S. have failed to meaningfully constrain or reverse this trend. Israel has also repeatedly stressed its “absolute freedom of action” to respond to future violations of its “redlines” by Iran, including its establishment of permanent military basing in Syria and its transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah via Syria. Israel could nonetheless perceive that this window for action is closing as the Russo-Iranian Coalition consolidates its position in Syria. These developments set the stage for further confrontation that risks escalation into a regional conflict between Israel and Iran.
The Syrian Civil War is not over. The 'Wars after ISIS' have begun. Syria remains a dangerous nexus for overlapping regional conflicts and great power struggle despite the claimed defeat of ISIS in Eastern Syria. The confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria is only one of the fissures that will fuel the next stage of the Syrian Civil War. Turkey opened its direct conflict against the Syrian Kurdish YPG with its military intervention into the majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton in Northern Syria on January 20. Turkey, Iran, and Russia are also engaged in a three-way struggle over long-term future of opposition-held Idlib Province that resulted in the downing of a Russian Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ on February 3. The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition faces intensified confrontation with the Russo-Iranian Coalition after the U.S. repelled a major pro-regime attack with force protection strikes in Deir ez-Zour Province on February 7. The increasing tempo of these incidents is not a coincidence but rather the predictable outcome of the mounting ‘Wars after ISIS’ in Syria. The U.S. has long attempted to distance the Anti-ISIS Campaign from the wider context of the Syrian Civil War. This artificial division is not - and was not - sustainable. The U.S. must craft a coherent strategy to meet this new reality lest it find itself reactively mired in the next phase of the Syrian Civil War.