‘Large scale attack’ sparks fears as Israel and Iran clash
OVER the past weekend, Iran and Israel have engaged in one of their most serious confrontations to date.
While the two countries have long had a tense relationship, a recent series of back-and-forth strikes has sparked a new direct conflict in Syria.
Critics have warned it could explode into a war capable of further destabilising the Middle East.
WHAT'S GOING ON WITH ISRAEL AND IRAN?
On Saturday morning, Israeli intelligence claimed to have spotted an Iranian drone approaching Israel's airspace from Syria.
The Israeli military deployed a combat helicopter to intercept the drone, and its social media head tweeted footage of the incident.
Later, Israel sent fighter jets into a Syrian military base near the city of Palmyra, where the drone was believed to be launched from.
Syria - one of Iran's closest allies - responded by firing a number of anti-aircraft missiles, and one of Israel's planes was struck down. It crashed into an empty field, seriously injuring the pilot.
This prompted Israel to conduct a much larger strike in Syria, attacking 12 targets, four of which were Iranian.
They told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that it was the largest and most successful attack on Syria's missile system since the 1982 Lebanon War.
This marks the first known time that Israel has engaged in a full-frontal confrontation with Iran in Syria.
The country sought to avoid direct involvement in the Syrian war, but acknowledged carrying out dozens of air strikes there to stop what it says are advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah.
Tensions between Israel and Iran have worsened, with fears this could spark a dangerous new phase of the war in Syria involving other countries.
ISRAEL AND IRAN'S TENSE RELATIONSHIP
Israel and Iran have had a tense relationship since the latter's Islamic revolution of 1979.
Since then, Syria has been one of Iran's key allies.
When Syrians began protesting the al-Assad government in 2011, there were reports that the Iranian government was assisting the regime to quell the protests.
In mid-2013, Iran sent 4000 troops in to aid the al-Assad government forces, and from that point onward it continued to step up its support.
Israel, meanwhile, has remained relatively neutral in the conflict, and has mostly kept a low profile. However, it has long held concerns about Iran's influence in the region.
The latest confrontation is significant as it marks the most serious clash between Iran and Israel since Syria's civil war began seven years ago.
Both countries are key figures in the region, and there are fears an open conflict between them will risk dragging neighbouring Lebanon and other surrounding countries into a new war.
HOW DID EVERYONE RESPOND TO THE INCIDENT?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to take further action against his adversaries, reiterating that his country would defend itself at all costs against Tehran.
He warned Israel's policy of self-defence against "any attempt to harm our sovereignty" was "absolutely clear".
"Iran brazenly violated Israel's sovereignty," he said. "They dispatched an Iranian drone from Syrian territory into Israel ... Israel holds Iran and its Syrian hosts responsible."
Iran, meanwhile, denied the allegations of a drone.
On Iranian television, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said: "Reports of downing an Iranian drone flying over Israel and also Iran's involvement in attacking an Israeli jet are so ridiculous ... Iran only provides military advice to Syria."
The US - an ally of Israel - blamed Iran for the incident, and said in a statement that it supported Israel's right to defend itself.
It also emphasised that the US did not participate in Israel's military operations in Syria.
It confirmed that it fully supports "Israel's sovereign right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people", and called for "greater international resolve in countering Iran's malign activities".
Meanwhile Russia - a firm ally of the Syrian pro-Assad government - urged "all sides to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could lead to an even greater complication of the situation".
WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT?
Critics have warned that the escalation of this conflict could force other countries into the mix.
The New York Times' Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger said this is just the beginning of a wider conflict between Israel, Iran and Iran's alliances.
"Neither side can be expected to back down," he wrote.
But it's not just the Middle East that may be affected. While Russia has largely managed to avoid taking sides in the conflict, experts say this won't last forever.
Chagai Tzuriel, the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence, said Russia now faces a "huge dilemma".
"Assad knows that Russia has advanced anti-aircraft capacities in Syria that it hasn't deployed to protect him," he told the Times. "And Israel knows that Russia hermetically controls Syrian airspace, and yet it did not inform Israel about the drone. Russia is going to have to decide which side they are on - and they don't want to be seen as being on either side."
Daniel Shapiro, who served as US Ambassador to Israel in the Obama Administration, said the US needed to increase its role in the conflict, rather than leave Israel to its own devices.
Meanwhile, Israeli journalist Alon Ben-David suggested the Syrian government will only be further inspired to launch future attacks.
"(Israelis had) grown accustomed to no one in the region being able to threaten our aircraft," he wrote in the Hebrew-language newspaper Maarav. "Assad's men will try hard to achieve more accomplishments like this."
As the Washington Post pointed out, the opposing forces had a common enemy in Islamic State. The fight against these forces is now slowing down, and new conflicts are taking its place.
In an editorial, Gulf News warned that a war between Israel and Syria will "spark another refugee exodus that the region is not prepared to handle", saying Iran and Israel should take their fight elsewhere.