February 15, 2018 | The Jewish Chronicle

Last weekend’s Israeli border incursion shows the extent of Iranian entrenchment in Syria

Last weekend’s provocation came just before the 39th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and was probably intended to deflect attention from rising discontent at home. But the move should not be considered a one-off.

For years, Iran has been building up a robust military presence in Syria under the auspices of an “advisory” mission to the embattled Assad regime. Yet, from the beginning, Tehran’s plan has been to turn its forces on Israel after they secure Damascus.

Israel’s response to the drone gambit — which authorities in Tehran refuse to confirm or deny — included deploying eight F-16I aircraft to target the drone’s base in Syria. Seven returned intact.

According to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, Syria’s Russian-made surface-to-air missiles “locked on to two Israeli aircraft.

One of these managed to evade the rockets, but the other was hit by fragments of the exploding missile.”

The Assad regime and groups like Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigadescelebrated the downing of the Israeli jet.

So, too, did Iranian authorities: one security official went so far as to claim “the era of hit and run is over”, a reference to Israel’s numerous targeted strikesagainst shipments of munitions to Hezbollah.

Iran has been using the Syrian war as cover to strengthen its Lebanese proxy.

When Hezbollah and Israel fought in 2006, the Jewish state only had to defend itself on the northern front.

Next time around, Iran and Hezbollah want to subject Israel to a two-front war, launched from both southern Lebanon and the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

The Syrian war has also given Iran the chance to develop new sources of manpower.

To help shore up the Assad regime, it marshalled zealous Shiites from South Asia and Iraq to fight and die in the Syrian jihad.

Now, some of those groups are eager to fight together in Iran’s next war.

Just yesterday, the leader of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite militia which played an outsized role in the siege of Aleppo, vowed to “stand with Hezbollah in any Israeli attack or action against it.”

The Islamic Republic is cementing its presence in the Levant – literally, by building missile factories in Syria, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says.

In December 2012, the Assad regime used what appears to be an Iranian-built solid-fuelled Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missile against rebels.

Two years later, a semi-official Iranian outlet claimed Hezbollah now also had that same missile. The risk of a Hezbollah arsenal capable of hitting towns and cities is why Israel has felt compelled to strike at so many convoys moving across Syria.

In the aftermath of the drone incident, Iranian confidence is ascendant. Tehran remains committed to resupplying its Lebanese proxy, as well as to creatively testing Israel’s resolve under a host of different conditions.

As for the United States, its recent pro-Israel statements show it understands the broad contours of the Iranian threat, but it is missing a comprehensive Syria policy that could deter Iranian aggression.

Without one, the spectre of yet another Middle Eastern conflict, involving Iran and its foreign legion, continues to grow.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.