WEATHER AUTHORITY : Freezing Fog Advisory View Alerts

Mideast tensions get even worse

As if the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East needed another conflict, along came an unprecedented escalation be...

Posted: Feb 12, 2018 11:08 AM
Updated: Feb 12, 2018 11:08 AM

As if the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East needed another conflict, along came an unprecedented escalation between Israel, Iran and Syria to make the region even more volatile and dangerous.

In the predawn hours of Saturday, an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace and was shot down. Israel retaliated by attacking Iranian facilities in Syria, from where the drone had launched, which prompted an Israeli F-16 fighter jet to come under Syrian fire and crash. This is believed to be the first time in decades that an Israeli jet has been taken down in such a manner.

Much about these incidents, particularly why Iran sent a drone into Israeli airspace, isn't yet certain. And where these events will lead is equally hard to predict. But here are the key takeaways to consider.

Escalation was inevitable

A perfect storm of factors with the potential to prompt an attack like Saturday's have been brewing for some time. Capitalizing on Iran's support of the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Teheran has moved to expand its influence in Syria as a hedge against US and Saudi designs. And with Iran's help, Hezbollah has probed areas close to the Syrian Golan Heights to possibly create another front against the Israelis.

They planned to establish weapons factories and land routes that might facilitate supply to Hezbollah. Motivated partly by the ideological struggle against Israel and by a practical need to build up a stronger capability in the event of an Iranian-Israeli conflict, Iran apparently plans to expand the Israeli-Lebanese front to include Syria.

For its part, Israel has drawn clear red lines that it warned Iran not to cross and has long complained about Iran's ambitions in Syria. These include Iran's desire to create a land bridge connecting Iran and Lebanon through Iraq and Syria, deploy 10,000 Shia militia in southern Syria, create maritime and air bases and weapons factories, and even to create a presence adjacent to the Golan Heights.

On this last goal, steps have already been taken. In 2015, Israel killed an Iranian general and senior Hezbollah operatives near the Golan Heights.

Over the last several years, Israel has conducted at least a hundred attacks in Syria, aimed at preventing weapons shipments to Hezbollah, blowing up weapons depots and eliminating regime or jihadi activity too close to its borders. But Saturday's violation of Israeli airspace and sovereignty by an Iranian drone was considered a provocation that needed a clear answer on the tactical level and a strategic response.

Post ISIS, the conflict is changing

The other reality, which could result in external powers clashing in Syria, is the shifting focus of the conflict. As US-led coalition forces have whittled away ISIS control of its "Caliphate," the struggle for influence, oil and territory has intensified. Turkey is fighting Syrian Kurds while the United States supports the Kurds in their effort to hold territory liberated from ISIS. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are supporting Assad's efforts to take territory back from jihadis in the Idlib province. All this further complicates Washington's relations with Turkey.

But as the commitment of these foreign external powers to the Syrian arena has grown, so have the costs. Within the past two weeks, a Syrian jihadi group shot down a Russian fighter jet, a Kurdish militia downed a Turkish helicopter, and Syrian air defenses disabled an Israeli F-16.

And as Iran and the Russians have helped the Assad regime take back territory, Assad's confidence and his willingness to challenge Israel have also grown. The downing of the Israeli fighter will hand Assad a propaganda victory and buck him up more.

This round may be contained

Despite the serious escalation, a sustained and massive confrontation is not necessarily around the corner. None of the major players is looking for a regional war.

Russia has no desire to undermine three years of investment in saving the Assad regime, only to see Israel become involved militarily in Syria, which could weaken the Syrian regime and strengthen the United States' hand against Iran. Iran isn't looking for war with Israel either, as it could jeopardize its own gains in Syria.

And Israel has no interest in getting bogged down in Syria or triggering a conflict with Hezbollah, Iran's loyal ally. A war with Hezbollah would rain thousands of rockets and missiles down on Israel's cities, produce heavy civilian casualties, and force Israel to wage a costly war against Lebanon.

More than likely, this coincidence of interests in avoiding war will succeed in deferring a major escalation to some later date. Could this dangerous moment produce a moderating effect forcing all sides to consider more stable arrangements?

It's doubtful given Iran's commitment to Assad and Russia's inability and unwillingness to constrain Teheran. Quite predictably, Moscow has adopted a position supporting both Syria and Iran and urged Israel to respect Syria's territorial integrity. Moreover, given the history of Israeli-Lebanese conflicts --from 1978 to 2006 -- it seems only a matter of time until the next round.

Where's Washington?

Faced with an unprecedented escalation between Israel, Iran and Syria, which contain any number of dangerous, historic and unpredictable firsts, the Trump administration seems to have adopted a hands-off, low-key approach to the current crisis. It's clearly very early in this crisis, but Washington seems content for now in issuing strong statements defending Israel's actions and condemning Iran's provocations.

It may well turn out that in a battle of wills between the Trump administration's staunchest Middle East ally and its greatest adversary, the President wants to use Israel to hammer Iran in Syria. He may have no interest in getting involved in any diplomatic effort that might force him to put brakes on Israel or push his friend Putin to restrain Iran.

As for the role of the secretary of state, it's more than a little awkward if not outright embarrassing that Rex Tillerson, who's traveling in the region, talked to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday, yet seems to have no plans to stop in Israel. He should add Israel to his itinerary, if only to receive a personal briefing on Israeli thinking and coordinate with Jerusalem.

The fact that he's not going speaks volumes about Tillerson's own marginalized role and the administration's lack of a strategy in thinking through how to pre-empt further escalation in a dangerous crisis. And rest assured the Israeli-Iranian tangle in Syria isn't going away. Sooner or later it will return with a vengeance.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 161516

Reported Deaths: 3916
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto10863104
Hinds10705207
Harrison7624114
Jackson6774131
Rankin6303114
Lee557798
Madison5311112
Forrest405587
Jones388589
Lauderdale3754149
Lafayette347358
Washington3421108
Lamar310350
Lowndes265168
Oktibbeha262763
Bolivar254686
Panola243754
Neshoba2333124
Marshall229451
Leflore216492
Monroe216278
Pontotoc213631
Lincoln203267
Sunflower198156
Warren189559
Tate187251
Union179626
Copiah176141
Pike170860
Pearl River168170
Itawamba166637
Scott166030
Yazoo164441
Alcorn161529
Coahoma160044
Prentiss159034
Simpson156954
Grenada149545
Adams148852
Leake146244
George138326
Covington137642
Holmes136861
Tippah135230
Winston134326
Hancock132842
Wayne127424
Attala126836
Marion126548
Tishomingo116444
Newton114929
Chickasaw112632
Tallahatchie101227
Clay98527
Clarke96954
Jasper90023
Stone85115
Calhoun82413
Montgomery80726
Walthall80430
Carroll78115
Lawrence76814
Smith76516
Yalobusha75728
Noxubee74817
Perry70127
Greene66023
Tunica64019
Amite61815
Jefferson Davis60818
Claiborne59716
Humphreys56119
Benton51018
Quitman5107
Kemper50019
Webster49514
Wilkinson42522
Jefferson39012
Franklin3866
Choctaw3757
Sharkey33517
Issaquena1254
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 264199

Reported Deaths: 3831
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson35310515
Mobile20626372
Madison14521153
Tuscaloosa13897173
Montgomery12844246
Shelby1127878
Baldwin9501138
Lee807167
Morgan740555
Etowah704870
Marshall695358
Calhoun6939126
Houston559140
DeKalb521843
Cullman490650
St. Clair466557
Limestone462446
Lauderdale452257
Elmore440070
Walker3914112
Talladega386157
Jackson373523
Colbert347948
Blount323146
Autauga294542
Franklin265534
Coffee260023
Dale247355
Dallas236832
Chilton235445
Covington234834
Russell23433
Escambia208832
Tallapoosa192692
Chambers189154
Clarke165422
Pike165215
Marion150236
Winston146325
Lawrence139936
Pickens129720
Geneva12929
Marengo127824
Bibb127038
Barbour121729
Butler121142
Cherokee108224
Randolph108022
Fayette102216
Hale102132
Clay95527
Washington94222
Henry9097
Monroe85311
Lowndes82930
Cleburne80914
Macon77522
Crenshaw73830
Lamar7348
Conecuh73215
Bullock71120
Perry7037
Wilcox65918
Sumter60122
Greene45818
Choctaw43620
Coosa3854
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 37°
Columbus
Clear
38° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 38°
Oxford
Clear
30° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 30°
Starkville
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 32°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather