Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast highlighted Israel's window of opportunity to strike against its regional adversaries, as their attention is focused on the battlefield in Syria. Recent airstrikes confirm that Israel is seizing that opportunity.
With its enemies distracted, Israel is seizing the opportunity to act. Early Feb. 10, the Israeli military detected an Iranian drone encroaching on Israeli airspace and shot it down. Taking things a step further, the Israeli air force then targeted the base in Syria that the drone operated out of. In the process, its aircraft came under heavy fire and an Israeli jet was shot down. The Israelis then launched another strike against 12 Syrian and Iranian sites in Syria, focusing primarily on infrastructure for air defense.
The large number of targets struck by Israeli forces in such a short period of time and the downing of an Israeli aircraft are both uncommon events. However, Israel routinely sends planes into Lebanese and Syrian airspace, and the country regularly carries out strikes on potential threats such as Syria's chemical weapons program or what Israel believes to be shipments of weapons to Hezbollah.
It's not clear what the Iranians were seeking to gain from a drone flight over Israeli positions beyond intelligence, but Iran, Syria and Hezbollah all have a strong incentive to once again deter Israeli actions. Even if all three want to avoid becoming embroiled in a major war with Israel at a time when their forces are already heavily committed to the Syrian battlefield, regional dynamics require that Israel be reminded it cannot simply continue to strike targets in Syria with impunity. If Iran, Syria or Hezbollah refuse to fight back, Israel will only be incentivized to carry out more airstrikes against them.
On the other hand, this latest flurry of strikes was highly indicative of Israel's continued restraint. Though recent events have demonstrated Israel's willingness to increase airstrikes while its adversaries are overstretched in the Syrian civil war, they have also highlighted the country's willingness to de-escalate attacks. Shortly after conducting airstrikes in response to the downing of its jet, Israel announced that it did not want the situation to escalate further and called on Russia to intervene to prevent further Iranian action.
Israel's restraint is likely caused largely by the considerable damage that a war with Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrian government would bring, but Russia's presence in Syria is likely also a factor. Because Russia is heavily invested in Syria and has personnel on the ground in the country, Israel will need to be very careful in its campaign against Syrian targets to avoid escalating animosity beyond the tiny country's control.