Iranian jets in Syrian skies, what could go wrong?

Contrary to news suggesting an Iranian military drawdown in Syria, there is strong evidence that Iran is upping the ante. Not only have Iranian officials vehemently denied they are withdrawing their forces from Syria’s killing fields, but, more ominously, according to recent reports confirmed by Western military sources, the air force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is slated to deploy fighter aircrafts to Syria. Some reports even suggest that Iran, under cover of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, is deploying two squadrons of Sukhoi jets at an airport near Homs. Russia will provide maintenance and air cover for Iran’s aircraft. This development creates the potential for a major escalation and underscores how an overhaul of the Obama administration’s Syria policy is desperately needed.

{mosads}There are already Western planes flying sorties against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets, Russian planes and Syrian helicopters attacking Syrian rebels’ strongholds, and Israeli jets occasionally carrying airstrikes against convoys transferring missiles and other advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. Israel is coordinating with Russian forces to minimize the risk of hostilities while preserving the option of enforcing its red lines against Hezbollah. Coordination of Western missions with Russia is also likely happening, though not foolproof. The recent downing of a Russian jet by Turkey along the Syrian-Turkish border underscores the volatility of the situation. Adding Iranian jet fighters to this already combustible mix can only make trouble likelier.

Responding to reports of Iranian jets in Syria, Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Israel would “not have to respond so long as the Iranian jets don’t interfere with us.” There is little chance that Western sorties would coordinate with IRGC air command and less than zero chance that Israel and Iran could work out an understanding to minimize the risk for a showdown. Russia may not care that Israel bombs Hezbollah’s weapons supplies, but it has enhanced its aerial military cooperation with the IRGC Air Force in Syria and Iran may interpret this cooperation as cover against Israel. It is thus likely that the IRGC will react to Israeli strikes.

The IRGC Air Force capabilities are not, per se, a strategic threat to Israeli operations. Iran’s most modern aircraft include some MiG-29s that Tehran acquired in the early 1990s and old Russian Sukhoi jets. Some of Iran’s MiG-29s were grounded for years and, although Iran’s Air Force commander, Shah Safi, boasted in 2010 that Iran’s MiGs were finally operational, they are no match to Western aircraft. The Sukhois Iran has are an older version of the plane downed by Turkey last month.

Technical inferiority is unlikely to be a restraining factor for Iran, however. Iranian security officials and publications boasted that Iran’s air force is ready to commit suicide operations against Israel. The possibility that Iranian jets let Israel bomb Hezbollah without a challenge or that Israeli jets abort mission to avoid confrontation is unlikely. Israel might grant IRGC pilots their death wish and down any plane that challenges its air supremacy. But things can go wrong — and all Iran needs to declare victory is to down one Israeli plane and capture a pilot, dead or alive. Iran could also respond by carrying suicide missions against soft Israeli or Jewish targets abroad and by encouraging and assisting Hezbollah operational units in kidnapping operations against Israeli troops along the Lebanon-Israel border. Hezbollah may not want to risk opening a front with Israel while it is bogged down in Syria. But a direct confrontation with Israel over Syria’s skies may change Iran’s calculations and lead to escalation. Any Iranian retaliation, in turn, would trigger Israel’s forceful reaction.

Fearful of upsetting nuclear negotiations and, since last July, desirous of capitalizing on the success of its nuclear diplomacy with Iran, the Obama administration has refused to match its Syria rhetoric with its Syria policy. President Obama has so far not lived up to his word on the need to blunt Iran’s regional ambitions in Syria. He has already partially walked back his initial pronouncements that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go. America’s reluctance to interfere in Syria has neither helped to contain nor solve its civil war. In fact, it has opened the door to escalation and, in the process, further limited America’s options, raising costs for any change of course.

A direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran would be hard to ignore, even for this president. It is not too late for Obama to salvage his legacy from the taint of his Syria policy. The much-cherished detente with Iran that the president has sought through nuclear diplomacy should be leveraged now to send a blunt message and let Iran know that an escalation with Israel in Syria would jeopardize everything that Iran has achieved so far.

Otherwise, the president might as well prepare for war, for nothing good can come from Iranian and Israeli jet aircraft inhabiting the same sky.

Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mansharof is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle East Studies at the University of Haifa, a researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, and until recently was an Iran analyst at the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Tags Hezbollah Iran Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Israel Russia Syria

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