Tuesday Feb 20, 2018
Israel Hayom
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The Iranian dilemma

This weekend's round of fighting sent all sides back to their corners to reassess the situation. On the surface, everyone claims victory, but the reality in Israel, Syria and Iran is far more complex.

Israel can say that it has maintained its red lines and once again acted against both Iran's attempts to establish itself in Syria and the Syrian air defenses that fired at Israeli fighter jets. This persistence is important because it places the dilemma of whether or not to pursue further hostilities squarely on the shoulders of the other side, which knows that continued escalation will come at a heavy price.

This policy cost Israel a fighter jet. The downing of the jet by enemy fire, for the first time since 1982, gave the Syrians a confidence boost with regard to their ability to challenge the Israeli Air Force. The initial inquiry concluded that the jet was hit because of an error in the operation of its defense systems, which can easily counter anti-aircraft missiles.

While Syria boasted the downing of an IAF jet – an achievement that cannot be downplayed, especially at the aircraft took fire in Israeli skies – it paid heavily for it. A large part of Syrian air defenses was destroyed in the Israeli retaliation and it risked rapid escalation opposite Israel, which is the last thing Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is interested in after seven years of bloody civil war.

Iran, for its part, does not have as much to boast about as it may think. The Iranian claim that it stage a strategic ambush for Israel that cost it a cheap drone and Israel an expensive fighter jet, does not hold water. The Iranians had no way of knowing how the battle would end and they paid a higher price than they are willing to admit: not only was the drone's control post destroyed, several other Iranian interests in Syria sustained a severe blow.

These interim results will now send all parties to do their homework. Israel has made it clear that any future violation of its interests on the border will lead to continued attacks. Still, the events of the weekend will certainly require more attention not only so as to avoid losing more jets, but mainly to avoid a rapid escalation that could lead to an undesired conflict with the Russian forces stationed in Syria, which are far from being a restraining factor.

Assad will have to decide how much he is willing to sacrifices for Iranian interests and whether he is willing to risk his regime in favor of foreign elements, which in turn may create tension between Damascus and Tehran. At the moment, Iran seems unfazed by this, and the rhetoric coming from Tehran over the past 24 hours is unequivocal – efforts to establish an Iranian presence in Syria will continue.

Iran will also have to make some decisions. The clash with Israel has highlighted its involvement in other countries, at the Iranian taxpayers' expense. It is doubtful that the Iranian regime would like to see the masses take to the streets again so soon after the Dec. 28 riots and it is even more doubtful that Tehran wants international public opinion to turn against it at a time when the future of the 2015 nuclear deal seems uncertain.

The prevailing assessment, therefore, is that all parties will now try to keep a lower profile, knowing that the next round is just around the corner.

Israel will undoubtedly continue to thwart weapon shipments to Hezbollah, and Iran will continue with its efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria. This will require Jerusalem and Tehran to decide how they want to conduct the battle: under the radar, as it has been so far, or out in the open, as it was on Saturday.

It seems Israel has already decided to pull out all the stops, so the ball is now in Iran's court. The decisions the ayatollahs make will determine the future nature of this conflict.

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