(CNSNews.com) – The armed clash between Israel and Iran over Syria at the weekend was not a “distraction” from efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict but a regrettable and “predictable symptom” of Iran’s ever more aggressive behavior, a senior State Department official said Monday.
“I wouldn’t put it as distraction,” the official told reporters in a background briefing in Kuwait on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s travel in the region. “I would put it as a symptom of a problem which we all see out there.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has spoken about the situation to Russian President Vladimir Putin -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s other key ally – and, the official said, “the Russians certainly understand the character of that threat.”
“The party that doesn’t seem to appreciate the consequences are the Iranians, and Hezbollah with Iran, and that worries us,” the official continued.
“It worries us because at the end of the day, further conflict in Syria is not a good thing for that country. It does not accelerate the process of stabilization, political transition – tough enough in a completely peaceful, permissive environment, much less in this environment.”
The Trump administration had backed the actions taken by Israel in response to the Iranian threat.
An Israeli Air Force Apache helicopter early Saturday shot down an Iranian reconnaissance drone – evidently a copy of a U.S. Sentinel drone shot down over eastern Iran in 2011 – which Israel had tracked until it crossed into Israeli airspace.
Israeli F-16 jets then quickly attacked the drone’s mobile command center at Palmyra airport, reportedly killing its Iranian crew. During that mission Syrian anti-aircraft systems hit an F-16 over Israeli territory, forcing the crew to abandon it before it crashed in the Galilee region.
It was the first time in more than three decades Syrian fire had brought down an Israeli warplane. Israel then launched a retaliatory wave of attacks, targeting a dozen Syrian and Iranian installations deep inside Syria including air-defense systems.
“We will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. “This has been our policy and it will remain our policy.”
Israel has warned for years that the deep Iranian and Hezbollah military involvement in Syria is raising unacceptable security threats and increasing the chances of open conflict.
Just two weeks ago Netanyahu met with Putin in Moscow and said afterwards he made clear that Israel regards Iran’s efforts to establish a military presence in Syria with “utmost gravity” and would “act according to need.”
After the weekend events, Netanyahu and Putin spoke by phone and, according to the Kremlin, the Russian president “spoke out in favor of avoiding any steps that could lead to a new round of dangerous confrontations in the region.”
Meanwhile Syria and its allies celebrated the downing of the Israeli F-16, with a Hezbollah leader saying that “the era of unanswered attacks has ended” and “a new strategic phase” has begun.
“The Syrian army showed the Zionists that the era of hit-and-run has ended,” said the head of Iran’s national security council, Ali Shamkani. Iran denies that its drone entered Israeli airspace.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said a day after the clash that Israel “has an absolute right to defend itself.”
“It is interesting that everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Europe. “Whether it be in Yemen or Beirut, or in Syria, in Iraq, you always find Iran engaged.”
Noting Iran’s supply of lethal weaponry to its Hezbollah ally, facilitated by the Assad regime, Mattis said the Israelis “don’t have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue.”