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Retaliation: Israel Launches Airstrikes In Syria After Fighter Jet Crashes


Israel is weighing a response to increasing aggression from Iran and Syria. Over the weekend, the Israeli military shot down a drone they say was sent by Iran through Syria. In retaliation, Israel conducted military raids against Iranian targets. Syrian forces shot at the jet, and it crashed just over the border back in northern Israel. And that then provoked even more bombing by Israel in Syria.

To talk about the escalating tension, we are joined now by Aaron David Miller. He spent decades advising secretaries of state on the Arab-Israeli peace process. He's also a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Always a pleasure, Rachel.

MARTIN: First off, why might Iran have been attempting to fly this drone inside Israel at this particular moment?

MILLER: You know, it's a very good question. The Israelis have been asking themselves that very thing, and they don't know, even though they've got the remains of the drone, which they're analyzing whether - by now, they may know whether this was armed or unarmed. I think it's part of an Iranian effort building up over the last couple years to take advantage of the situation in Syria both for ideological and practical reasons to increase Iranian influence, bases, weapons depots and the possibility, should there be an Israeli-Lebanese confrontation over the border, to expand the front into Syria. And this is something, obviously, the Israelis are very worried about. But the drone penetration was a first among a number of firsts, which makes this episode quite dangerous and very volatile.

MARTIN: And Syria knows the stakes here, but clearly, the regime of Bashar al-Assad doesn't care. They're feeling emboldened now after ousting ISIS.

MILLER: Absolutely, which is the second factor in this perfect storm that's been gathering. I mean, Assad now controls roughly 80 percent of (unintelligible), backed by the Russians and the Iranians. And he feels extremely self-confident. And look. This is an ongoing war. But this round, clearly, I think - even though the Israelis struck a lot of targets, including Iranian targets in Syria, which is another first, the Syrians can claim that they've downed the first Israeli jet fighter since 1982. And that's a tremendous - for this regime, emboldened and probably overconfident - tremendous victory.

MARTIN: Where is Russia right now in all this?

MILLER: Russia is in the middle, navigating a very, very fine line, trying to preserve its relations with Iran and with the Assad regime. Putin does not have full control over them, but he needs them on one hand. And on the other, he does not want to jeopardize what is now almost three years of Russian investment in Syria by encouraging the Israelis to mount a major military campaign, which could undermine Assad and start an Iranian-Israeli war in Syria. So I think the reality is Putin, in some respects, is looking for a way to manage and navigate this.

MARTIN: So the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is in the region. Israel, though, is not on his official itinerary. Why might that be?

MILLER: This, to me, is the most extraordinary thing about it. I mean, I remember back in the day in both '93 and '96, we accompanied Secretary of State Christopher in two different escalations between Israel, Hezbollah and Syria over the Lebanese border on secretarial shuttles. It's extraordinary to me. I mean, if Tillerson hadn't been previously scheduled to visit the Middle East - Cairo, Kuwait, Amman, Beirut and Turkey - I mean, maybe they could have gotten away with phone calls and statements from the White House, but the fact that the secretary of state of the United States of America is in the region against the backdrop of what is clearly the first significant Middle East crisis for the Trump administration, and there's no stop in Israel strikes me as awkward at a minimum and evidence of the fact that either the Trump administration isn't interested in this but somehow wants to remain on the sidelines.

MARTIN: Aaron David Miller - he's a former State Department adviser on the Middle East and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thank you so much, as always, for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

MILLER: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "A HUNDRED MOONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.