Things appear to have settled down in Syria following last weekend’s clash between Iran and Israel. An Iranian drone’s violation of Israeli air space set in motion retaliatory air strikes by Israeli warplanes against an Iranian command and control site that was responsible for guiding the Iranian UAV. The Iranian site was situated at the T-4 airbase near Palmyra, Syria. An Israeli F-16 was hit by an SA-5 surface-to-air missile and went down over northern Israel. Not long after the initial raid, Israel’s air force took to the skies again and targeted a large number of Syrian air defense sites, as well as Iranian-manned facilities. The strikes pushed tensions in the area high enough that Russia had to intervene in order to halt further escalation.
What transpired last weekend shouldn’t come as a shock given what has been going on in the vicinity of the Israeli-Syrian border recently. Iran has been maintaining a heavy presence and high level of activity along the border for some time. Israel has bent over backwards to send warnings to Iran, Syria, and Russia through every possible channel that it will not tolerate Iranian activity on its border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that a military option would be pursued if an acceptable diplomatic solution was not found.
When the Iranian UAV violated sovereign Israeli air space, Tel Aviv recognized the act as Iran crossing a red line. Diplomacy had failed, and the time came for Israel to unsheathe its sword.
Right now none of the major players in Syria are ready to risk a full-scale conflict. The Assad government, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, are holding most of the cards. If Tehran provokes Israel now it serve the interests of no one, and could affect the balance of power in Syria as it currently stands. Iran will continue to defy Israeli red lines, though it may choose a different arena, and other methods to continue the conflict. Lebanon comes to mind immediately as the most likely next area, and Hezbollah provides a number of options for future Iranian action against Syria.
The situation has quieted for the moment, however, the pause will not be permanent. More clashes between Iran and Israel can be expected in the coming months.
Tensions in the Middle East are heightened this Saturday after Israel launched air strikes against Syrian air defense sites, and Iranian targets inside of Syria following an earlier incident when an Iranian UAV entered Israeli air space and was shot down. During the Israeli raids one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in northern Israel. The pilots ejected safely, however, one sustained serious injuries according to reports. The incident marks the first time since the 1980s that an Israeli warplane has been shot down as a result of enemy action. Even more disconcerting is the fact that drone incident, and air strikes mark the first direct clash between Israeli and Iranian forces inside of Syria.
Israeli fighters struck the site where the drone was launched first. Subsequent strikes were made against other Iranian military targets in Syria, as well as Syrian air defense batteries. IDF reports do not indicate whether the F-16 was downed by AAA fire, or a SAM. The fighter carried a two man crew, indicating that was likely a type of F-16 that Israel uses in the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role, leading to the conclusion that the Israelis were probably targeting SAM batteries. (note: Right before posting I learned the aircraft was in fact struck by an SA-5 SAM)
Today’s shootdown is the third one to take place in the Syrian skies this week. A Russian Su-25 Frogfoot was downed by FSA forces last Saturday, and earlier today it was confirmed that a Turkish helicopter over northern Syria was attacked and destroyed by Kurdish forces sometime in the past 24 hours.
The consequences of the action in Syria and northern Israel remain to be seen. There is a strong possibility that Israel’s response could be heavier air strikes against targets in Syria, possibly as part of a bigger effort to put more pressure on Iran.
Although the Olympic games are supposed to bring peace and goodwill to mankind, it would appear somebody forgot to tell that to Iran and Syria.
Speaking for the first time since protests began in Iran last Thursday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Iran’s enemies for instigating the internal strife. He was quoted with the following statement: “In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles for the Islamic Republic.”
Although Khamenei did not specifically mention the enemies by name, his comment was designed to be a swipe at Iran’s traditional adversaries, namely Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. President Trump has been especially vocal with his support of Iranian protesters, tweeting his views as well as reminders that the United States is watching events in Iran closely. So is the rest of the world, for that matter. Khamenei had to release a statement of some sort in response to Trump’s comments. It comes as no surprise that his first public comment on the crisis was to blame the riots on Iran’s enemies. The statement was generic. When faced with internal unrest, Iran has a history of blaming its enemies for inciting it.
At least twenty Iranians have died in the protests and over 500 were arrested thus far. Those numbers will continue to rise as long as the unrest continues. This round of protests and riots is significantly smaller than those which took place in 2009. Back then, millions protested the results of the presidential election that gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office. Security forces eventually crushed the Green Movement following weeks of violent protests.
The current demonstrations are being fueled by economic hardship though and this reality is leaving Iran’s leadership somewhat unnerved. Economic problems have a way of spiraling into political chaos. Inflation and unemployment are rising, yet the government has been unable to do anything substantial to reverse economic conditions. Iranians are feeling the pinch and their frustrations have blossomed into anger against the government. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.
The protests going on in Tehran have surprised much of the world, and appear to have caught the Iranian government flatfooted. This round of protests has not stemmed from the questionable results of a presidential election, as the 2009 protests and subsequent Green movement did. This time around the grievances are economic in nature. Rampant corruption, and a declining standard of living are the causes that have brought Iranian citizens out to protest the government. The regime is likely to come down hard on the protesters. Security forces have been clashing with students around Tehran University and other parts of the capital. Those protests are expanding across the country right now. Where it goes from here remains to be seen, however, this challenge to the Iranian government is not likely to evaporate quickly.
The Trump administration warned Iranian leaders last night that the world is watching events unfold. It is unlikely that Iran’s government will pay heed to the US comments. They have already been labeled as ‘opportunistic’ in government statements. Iran has enough problems to deal with in the streets at the moment, though it would be useful to consider what, if any, impact the protests will have on Tehran’s ventures abroad. From its involvement in Syria and Yemen, to the regional confrontation with Saudi Arabia, Iran has been very active. Will that continue to be the case if the internal situation at home deteriorates?
Pressure is building on Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemeni ports and allow food, water, and other essential materials into the country. Saudi Arabia blockaded Yemen’s ports after Houthi rebels fired a SCUD missile last month. Relief organizations have been warning that the situation in Yemen is growing dire. The nation’s economy and infrastructure have been shattered by years of strife, and civil war. Millions of civilians are at risk of starvation.
Now the United States is joining the chorus of nation-states and organizations around the world that are calling on Saudi Arabia to open access in Yemen to prevent yet another humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. Yesterday, President Trump issued a harsh criticism of the Saudi actions and announced that his administration would be calling upon Riyadh to end its blockade. Today, administration officials and advisors have gone to work on the matter in a series of phone calls and meetings with Saudi officials.
Saudi Arabia is a close US ally, and the relationship between the Trump administration and Riyadh has been particularly warm. The White House is hoping to use its clout to ameliorate the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Of course, the request is not being made simply because it is the right thing to do. There are potential benefits for the Trump administration’s foreign policy embedded in it as well. The US announcement that it recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will be moving its embassy in Israel there from Tel Aviv is a potential power keg. There is concern about the how Muslims across the region will react to the move. The US is hoping its position on the Saudi blockade, and improving the situation in Yemen will cool Muslim reactions to the Jerusalem move.
The Saudis might not be ready to relinquish the blockade so easily, though. The death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthis on 4 December has altered the dynamics of the Yemeni civil war. Wednesday’s Saudi airstrikes against targets in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, launched in retaliation for Saleh’s death, indicate escalation could be on the horizon. It would be in Saudi Arabia’s best interests to halt the blockade at least temporarily, however, given the events of the past few days in Yemen, there’s no guarantee that Riyadh’s final decision will be influenced even by the prodding of its closest ally.