Iran, Israel battle openly in race to define ‘rules of the game’

(NBC NEWS) — The shift from covert attacks to open fighting between Iran and Israel illustrates that the regime in Tehran feels emboldened enough to confront and provoke its enemy, according to analysts.

Last weekend’s clashes involving an Iranian drone launched from Syria, a downed Israeli jet and retaliatory airstrikes may also signal a new and intensified period of conflict, experts warn.

Fighting between Iran and Israel had until now been conducted furtively or through proxies — such as Tehran-backed Lebanese militant group and political party, Hezbollah.

Saturday’s confrontation signals “a different level of self confidence in Tehran and Damascus in terms of them having the upper hand in Syria,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

He said Iran, Israel and Syria would likely continue to test each other’s boundaries as each tries to “define the new rules of the game.”

The back-and-forth attacks demonstrate how the conflict in Syria — what began as a civil war nearly seven years ago — has turned into a broader power contest with ramifications for the entire region.

The showdown began with Israel shooting down an Iranian reconnaissance drone that Israel claimed had entered its airspace. Israel retaliated for the incursion by striking the Iranian base in Syria from which the drone was operated. A Syrian anti-aircraft missile hit one of the attacking Israeli F-16 jets, which crashed on Israeli soil after the two pilots ejected; both survived, but one was seriously injured.

The incident culminated in the largest set of Israeli airstrikes against Syrian air defenses since the 1982 Lebanon War. The strikes also targeted several Iranian positions in Syria.

By downing Iran’s drone and attacking its sites in Syria, Israel signaled that it has little tolerance for a stronger Iranian presence on its northern border.