By RONEN BERGMAN* – THE NEW YORK TIMES
In the early hours of Saturday morning, the Middle East was on the brink of yet another war.
During the night, according to my high-ranking sources, Israel’s intelligence services had been tracking an Iranian drone that was launched by the Quds division of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the Tiyas air base in central Syria.
A minute and a half after the drone entered Israeli airspace, an Israeli Air Force attack helicopter shot it out of the sky. Simultaneously, eight Israeli fighter jets fired missiles at the drone’s command and control center at Tiyas, blowing it up, along with the Iranians manning the center. (Iran has denied that its drone was shot down or that its troops were killed.)
The Syrian military, allied with Iran, responded by firing surface-to-air missiles at the Israeli jets. The missiles locked onto two Israeli aircraft. One of these managed to evade the rockets, but the other was hit by fragments of the exploding missile. The two-man crew ejected and landed in Israeli territory. One of them was gravely wounded.
This was the first aircraft that Israel had lost in combat since 1982, and its air force, its reputation for invincibility injured, responded angrily by striking at the Syrian air defense system, knocking out five batteries, as well as destroying four Iranian communications facilities in Syria.
The response to the downing of the Israeli jet was intended to be a lot more violent. Israel has long maintained contingency plans for a huge offensive operation in Syria. On Saturday, the generals took them out of the drawer. But the Iranians and the Syrians, along with their Lebanese ally Hezbollah, realized that something like that was in the offing, and let it be known that they would not let it happen without responding. The Israelis heard this, but were not deterred. The Israel Defense Forces went on to a war footing.
It soon became clear, though, who is calling the shots. The Israeli bombardments of the air base had been dangerously close to Russian forces. A furious phone call on Saturday morning from President Vladimir Putin of Russia was enough to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel cancel the plans.
Publicly as well, the Russians vehemently condemned Israel’s violation of Syrian sovereignty, making no mention of the Iranian drone’s incursion into Israeli airspace. “Even outwardly, publicly, the Russians took the other side, against us, and not only in private,” a senior Israeli military source told me. “They could have prevented the launch of the drone, but they didn’t do anything. We heard the Russian message, very loud and clear.”
War was averted — but only for now. All of the ingredients for an extremely violent eruption in the Middle East remain in place.
Iran was the first country to come to the aid of President Bashar al-Assad when the Syrian civil war broke out six years ago. Joining the Iranians were units from Hezbollah, as well as Shiite fighters shipped in from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is thanks to these forces that the Assad regime has survived.
Israel predicted early on that these units’ guns would eventually be turned against it. But in those days, the Islamic State was seen as the embodiment of all evil and accordingly anyone fighting it was one of the good guys. No one heeded Israel’s warnings.
For its part, Israel has conducted more than 100 bombing and missile raids in Syria, without ever admitting it or taking responsibility, against storage sites for weapons and convoys supplying the Iranian-led forces.
With the Syrian Army itself extended to its limits combating rebels, and the Iranians and Hezbollah helping it in the heavy fighting, this tripartite alliance was forced to swallow time after time some bitter truths: They recognized that Mossad and Israeli military intelligence knew how, where and when they were operating, and they knew that they wouldn’t be able to respond to the Israeli raids without suffering heavy losses.
When Russian forces entered Syria in 2015 and it became clear that the United States would not take real measures to counter Mr. Putin’s moves, Mr. Netanyahu managed to set up a secret communications channel between himself and the Russian president, according to my sources in Israeli intelligence, as well as an encrypted phone line for communication between Israel and the Russian military and intelligence in order to prevent clashes between Israeli and Russian forces in Syria.
But that limited amount of tactical coordination hasn’t led Russia to understand Israel’s strategic needs. As an Assad victory approaches, Israel has been asking Russia to guarantee that the Iranians will leave Syria once the war is over. Those requests have been met with indifference in Moscow. Russia wants to build a secure foothold in the Middle East and its policy requires it to maintain good relations with Iran.
Israel has also asked the Trump administration several times to do something to stop the situation from deteriorating. Last August, a high-ranking delegation visited Washington, including Yossi Cohen, the director of the Mossad, and Herzl Halevi, the head of Israeli military intelligence. They presented H. R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, with, according to my sources, “sensitive intelligence material, credible and of great concern” about Iranian and Hezbollah plans to attack Israel on the border with Syria. Hezbollah, they said, was building a significant military presence in Syria and Iran was planning to set up a naval base on the Mediterranean at the port of Tartus.
A participant in those talks told me that Israel “demanded” that any peace agreement in Syria require the removal of Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops from the country.
The Americans, however, didn’t agree to deliver. “We do not altogether understand what this administration wants to achieve,” I was told by one of the participants in the talks, “and truth be told we are not at all sure that our interlocutors on the American side know what they want or what the president had told them to achieve. The general feeling is one of confusion and chaos.”
The conduct of the United States, which has largely withdrawn from the Middle East, in the face of the Iranian and Russian presence in Syria has prompted anger and frustration toward America in parts of the Israeli military and intelligence communities.
The events on Saturday made two things clear: First, Israel will no longer be able to act in Syria without limitations. The joint forces opposed to it will from now on react with vigor. Second, if anyone was not yet aware of it, Russia is the dominant power in the region.
This weekend’s events brought the confrontation between Israel and Iran into the open air, making the prospect of a bigger conflict more immediate and more menacing. Israel has demonstrated in the past that it is forceful when it feels that it has been left to fend for itself.
On Friday morning, for the first time ever, an Israeli prime minister will attend the Munich Security Conference. Mr. Netanyahu and his Mossad chief, Mr. Cohen, who will accompany him, hope to make it clear there that the current configuration in Syria is unacceptable — and to warn the United States and other countries that if Iran is not reined in, Israel will attack its bases in Syria.
Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East, but wars are unpredictable. And everyone — from Moscow to Jerusalem to Washington — should want to deter an even more serious conflagration in Syria before it’s too late.
*Ronen Bergman, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at Yedioth Ahronoth, is the author, most recently, of “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.”