By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, April 22 (Reuters) – Iran and Israel traded blame on Sunday for an unprecedented, weeks-long surge in hostilities between their forces over Syria but played down prospects of a spillover into war.
A showdown between the arch-foes has loomed since Feb. 10, when Israel said an armed Iranian drone launched from a Syrian base penetrated its territory. Israel downed the drone and, during a reprisal raid, lost an F-16 jet to Syrian ground fire.
On April 9, an air strike killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members at the Syrian base. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed unspecified retaliation, drawing Israeli counter-threats to broaden attacks on Iranian military assets in Syria.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a U.S. television interview that further Israeli sorties in Syria would have “consequences”. But he deemed major escalation as unlikely.
“I do not believe that we are headed towards regional war but I do believe that unfortunately, Israel has continued its violations with international law, hoping to be able to do it with impunity because of the U.S. support and trying to find smokescreens to hide behind,” Zarif told CBS News.
“The easiest answer would be to stop – to stop these acts of aggression, to stop these incursions.”
Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Russia have been reinforcing Damascus against a 7-year-old Syrian rebellion. The Israelis worry that Iran’s garrison will remain, linking with Hezbollah to form a broad Syrian-Lebanese front against them.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated his government’s policy of preventing Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
“No matter the price, we will not allow a noose to form around us,” he told Israel Radio in an interview.
But asked if that meant war was imminent, he said: “I hope not. I think that our primary role is prevent war, and that requires concrete, real deterrence as well as readiness to act.”
Israel Katz, the Israeli intelligence minister, suggested world powers might intervene to curb Iranian activity in Syria.
Israel is “not interested” in escalation, Katz told the Ynet news site. But Israeli power-projection, he said, “can challenge the Iranians, can clarify to the Russians, who seek stability, that it is worth it for them to apply their influence, and the same goes for the United States, for France and all the others”.
The Syria face-off comes as the Trump administration mulls reimposing U.S. economic sanctions against Tehran by May 12, a move that could deal a blow to an international 2015 deal under which the Iranians capped their nuclear projects.
Zarif said Iran might respond to any unravelling of the deal by “resuming at a much greater speed our nuclear activities”.
Israel has savaged the deal and encouraged a U.S. review, but Katz appeared to acknowledge the outcome could be costly.
“The United States is changing policy. Israel is determined to prevent this (Iranian nuclear) red-line, a crossing of this red-line,” he said. “These are testing times for us. I hope that we won’t pay prices.”
(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)