Israel has withdrawn a squadron of fighter jets from a high-profile multinational military exercise in the United States and given them orders to stay in country. The move highlights Israel's deepinging concern over rising tensions with Iran and its need for greater readiness along its northern border with Syria.
Instead of participating in a high-profile U.S. military air combat exercise in Alaska that starts April 30, the Israeli Defense Forces ordered a squadron of its fighter jets — likely the 69th Squadron, equipped with F-15I Ra'am strike fighters — to remain in Israel, while other of its air force assets have been allowed to proceed. Given that the U.S. Red Flag exercises require substantial preparation and confer valuable experience, Israel would not have made the decision to keep its fighters home lightly. The withdrawal, announced April 17, indicates a heightened probability that a cycle of escalation and confrontation between Iran (and, by extension, Hezbollah) and Israel lies ahead.
Ever since Israel struck the Tiyas air base in central Syria on April 9, killing an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander and at least six others, Iran has been threatening unspecified retaliation. The Israelis, by keeping their premier strike fighter squadron at home and at full strength, are either better positioning themselves for an Iranian strike or are themselves gearing up to carry out attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria. F-15I fighters could play a central role in both scenarios.
The Looming Iranian Presence
Iran's entrenchment in Syria has driven Israel's increasing defensive preparations. While supporting its Syrian government ally in its fight against rebel forces in the country's civil war, Iran has simultaneously expanded its network of bases and assets there. Israel has responded over the past few years with a series of strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, but Iran hasn't budged, prompting Israel to raise the alarm more publicly. In comments to the news media, for example, Israeli defense officials purposefully highlighted several potential Iranian targets, including its Syrian bases and the head of the IRGC air force.
The Feb. 9 incursion of an allegedly armed Iranian drone into Israeli airspace kicked this underlying tension into high gear, triggering a series of strikes and counterstrikes that damaged both sides. Syrian troops experienced several casualties and Israel lost an F-16I fighter, which was shot down by Syrian air defenses.
Adding to Israel's worries over Syria, the United States appears increasingly interested in looking for an exit from the conflict. Its absence could potentially allow Iran to further entrench its position, increasing its threat to Israel's northern frontier. Even the U.S.-led missile strike on Syrian chemical weapons sites on April 14 has done little to assuage the Israelis, since the operation's deliberately contained scope omitted Iranian or Hezbollah targets.
The Feb. 9 incursion of an allegedly armed Iranian drone into Israeli airspace kicked this underlying tension between the two countries into high gear, triggering a series of strikes and counterstrikes that damaged both sides.
Given that atmosphere, it is worth monitoring Israeli moves that could signal that the country is preparing to take further direct action against Iran in Syria. Canceling the Red Flag deployment is only one sign. Further developments, such as force movements, a significantly elevated alert status or even a reservist call-up, could also indicate that Israel is planning to strike first.
A Possible Iranian Retaliation?
It's also important to watch for signs that Iran might retaliate for previous Israeli attacks in Syria; actions by either country could add to the tit-for-tat escalation.
For now, Lebanese militant group and Iranian ally Hezbollah has distanced itself from the idea that it will take part in an Iranian retaliation. Iran sees Hezbollah's ability to threaten Israel as a powerful deterrent against significant Israeli or American action against it. It would thus be reticent to trigger a conflict involving Hezbollah that could devastate the group's capabilities. And Hezbollah's current heavy involvement in the Syrian civil war means it could ill-afford to face a bruising conflict with Israel right now, especially since it undoubtedly would be the chief target of any future Israeli action in Lebanon. Furthermore, upcoming Lebanese elections, in which Hezbollah candidates are competing for votes, factor into its current status. A battle with Israel could damage its chances in the May 5 vote, especially if a major war upends Lebanon's already fragile economy.
Nevertheless, Iran does have options for retaliating against Israel in a more contained fashion. Tehran could lean heavily on various militias and allied proxy forces in the Gaza Strip to try to present a two-front threat to Israel. These efforts might include Hamas but more likely would tap the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is closer to Iran. These groups could carry out symbolic — but ultimately limited — strikes against Israeli positions or interests. And while a retaliatory attack could occur at any moment, the middle of May provides two symbolic opportunities. May 13 marks Jerusalem Day in Israel. In addition to commemorating Israel's capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, the date will come right before the United States plans to formalize its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital with the official move of its embassy on May 14; an attack then could undercut the celebrations. On May 15, Palestinians will take part in Nakba Day, culminating in a series of Hamas-led protests in the Gaza Strip that could give cover to operatives from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or another group to infiltrate or strike at Israel's border wall — efforts that already have been underway for the past few weeks.
The involvement of Hamas in such activities, however, may be limited by the economic crisis gripping the Gaza Strip. As the group wrestles with deteriorating conditions in the region and struggles to provide basic services, it may be unwilling to provoke Israel in a large-scale confrontation that causes a full economic collapse.
The most likely origin of an attack on Israel comes not from the south but from the IRGC in Syria to Israel's north. Iran and its local proxies are pushing closer to the Golan Heights, and Iran could take advantage of the battlefield chaos in southern Syria to stage its own limited retaliatory strike on Israel over the next few weeks. The greater risk for Iran, and to the region at large, is that with Israel on high alert and vowing to meet any strike with an overwhelming response, attacks from either side could quickly escalate beyond the proportional attack and response cycle.
The most likely origin of an attack on Israel comes not from the south but from the IRGC in Syria to Israel's north.
Even without a direct strike, there is a considerable risk of miscalculation. On April 17, Syrian air defenses opened fire in response to what turned out to be a misinterpreted signal, displaying the jittery nerves of the Syrian and Iranian air defenses. Their itchy trigger fingers pose a risk that a future misunderstanding could result in the accidental targeting of civilian or military aircraft. As the rhetoric between both sides heats up, such missteps become more likely.
The Role of the White House
Finally, it will be important to keep tabs on official rhetoric, leaks or reports about U.S. and Israeli dialogue. Within the White House, Israel is looking to embolden advisers like Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and new National Security Adviser John Bolton, who advocate a more hawkish approach to Iran than the more nuanced approach favored by Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The course advocated by Pompeo and Bolton favors a more holistic Iranian containment strategy, including operations within the Syrian theater. Israel was disappointed that the April 14 missile strikes did not extend to targets beyond Syria's chemical weapons program, a choice influenced by Mattis, who opposed an expanded bombing mission. If the United States does consider expanding its push against Iran, then Israel will use its White House connections to minimize Mattis' voice in the final policy decisions.
At the same time, the White House's Syria strategy may soon face limits imposed by Congress. Draft legislation to refocus President Donald Trump's war powers is working its way through committee. This draft — an update of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force — would narrow the president's war-making ability to targeting transnational terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban and other associated forces, leaving out the Syrian government, Iran and potentially Hezbollah. Should the legislative push survive long enough to make it to the president's desk, the bill could legally constrain the United States' ability to militarily cooperate with Israel against Iran.