A news analysis by Ronald Baygents
WASHINGTON, Feb 13 (KUNA) -- The Trump administration is sending "a clear and strong signal that in its view Israel has every right to unilaterally and pre-emptively confront any national security threats to it that are coming from Syria," Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, told KUNA on Tuesday.
Heras was responding to questions about the US stance in the wake of the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet by Syrian antiaircraft fire, which led to Israel carrying out extensive airstrikes inside Syria on Saturday.
Analysts interviewed by KUNA, as well as recent remarks by US Defense Secretary James Mattis, emphasized the hand of Iran in the latest military developments in Syria.
"Israel's willingness to use military power, carefully walking up an escalation ladder depending on the threat from Iranian and Hezbollah forces that are actively operating in Syria, is not contradictory to the Trump team's Syria strategy," Heras said.
The government of Israel and the Trump administration "are greatly concerned with Iran's effort to turn the Assad-controlled areas of western Syria into one large armed camp for Hezbollah and other Iranian-mobilized Shia militias to carry a war into the territory of Israel itself," he said.
The Trump team "has laid out a vision quite clearly that it seeks to diminish Iran in Syria, in all facets of Iranian influence there, and Israel's military capabilities are a key part of that strategy," Heras said. "There is going to be no daylight between President Trump and the Israelis in regard to Israel's freedom of action in Syria."
An Iranian drone's penetration of Israeli airspace was "a clear provocation, and the strong Israeli reaction wasn't surprising," Ibrahim Al-Assil, a Syrian political analyst, civil society activist and resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, told KUNA. The Iranian presence near Israeli borders is "a big concern for Israeli security," he added.
The US has emphasized its intention to curb Iranian destabilizing activities in the region, but has not outlined a clear strategy to do so, he said.
"In Syria, Iran has increased its influence on the regime and the armed forces, and even Russia can't limit that influence in Syria," Al-Assil said.
"The United States might need to draw some red lines for Iranian military activities in Syria," he said. "Iran seems to be thinking about its next step, and might turn its militias on the ground in Syria toward other regional targets -- after they succeeded in securing wide territories in Syria and pushing the Syrian opposition forces."
It will not be an easy task for the US, and "requires tremendous diplomatic efforts" from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Al-Assil said.
The Israeli Air Force has dominated the skies over Syria and Lebanon for decades, Hady Amr, a non-resident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, told KUNA. "Indeed, we heard this weekend from the Israeli Air Force that they have flown thousands of sorties over Syria in the past year alone," he noted.
The detente between Israel, Lebanon and Syria "has been tense as of late," Amr said.
"While the incident will certainly raise tensions, we should all hope that calmer heads will prevail," he said. "We also don't know yet if this incident will alter the balance of power in the skies over Syria and cause Israel to hold back on further missions, but we do know that the Israeli military is a learning organization and will adapt."
Beyond issuing statements supporting Israel's right to defend itself against Iranian and Syrian aggression in the Golan Heights, the US has not responded to the downing of the Israeli jet "in a meaningful way," Alia Awadallah, research associate for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress think tank, told KUNA.
"Even with the announcement of a small US residual force in Syria to counter Iranian influence, US troops are focused on northeastern Syria and show no sign of getting involved in the Golan," Awadallah said.
Israeli leaders are aware of this and instead directing their response to Russia President Vladimir Putin, who they hope will reign in Iran and Syria from more transgressions, she said.
"The United States has actively avoided becoming involved in this area, but if there are further incidents you would expect it to take a more active role in mediating and de-escalating tensions to avoid a conflict," Awadallah said.
Mattis on Sunday said "everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it. Whether it be in Yemen or Beirut, or in Syria, in Iraq, you always find Iran engaged."
"If you live in the region, there's no doubt what Iran is doing," Mattis said. "If you're in Bahrain, and the police there have captured explosives and that sort of thing, clearly from Iran; if you're picking up debris in Saudi Arabia of Iranian missiles; or you've got explosive boats, remote-controlled boats out in the Red Sea, you can see where Iran is either producing the wherewithal for the fight or actually leading the fight, in some cases."
The Quds Force leadership is evident in Iraq and Syria, he noted.
Syria is providing a way "for Iran to give weapons, including more sophisticated weapons, to the Lebanese Hezbollah," and Israel "has an absolute right to defend themselves," Mattis said, commenting on the recent Israeli airstrikes inside Syria. "They (the Israelis) don't have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue." (end).