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Israel suffers major setback in Syria

An Israeli F16-fighter jet preparing for a mid-aid refueling during a training mission [US Air Force photo/ Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald/Wikipedia]
An Israeli F16-fighter jet [US Air Force photo/ Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald/Wikipedia]

The military confrontation between Israeli and Syrian/Iranian forces on 10 February set off widespread analysis and speculation on the probability of a major regional war. The severity of the latest clash – with reports that Israel may have destroyed up to 50 per cent of Syrian air defence systems – underscores the depth of tension in the area.

But the most important aspect of the clash was the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet by Syrian air defences. This marked the first time in 36 years that an Israeli fighter jet has been brought down in combat. In view of Israel’s regional air superiority, this is a significant loss, especially in terms of morale, as it highlights Israeli vulnerabilities.

In view of the loss of the F-16 fighter jet – which left one Israeli airman gravely wounded – and the spirited fight back by Syrian air defence forces, it is clear that Israel has lost this latest round of sparring with its regional foes Iran and Syria.

The credible resistance of Syrian air defence forces speaks to their growing confidence, a reality that is reinforced by wider developments, notably Syria’s winning momentum in the final stage of the country’s complex proxy war. But this is unlikely to deter Israel, which views Iran’s presence in Syria as a major national security threat.

The next major clash may be just around the corner.

Enemies in close proximity

Israel has tried hard to blame Iran for starting the clash by sending an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (drone) over the border into Israel. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s complaint that Iran violated Israeli sovereignty is hard to square with Israel’s near-weekly violation of Syrian air space during the entire course of the Syrian conflict.

Indeed, since 2012 Israel has conducted at least 100 air strikes on targets inside Syrian territory. Whilst the majority of these have been described as “Hezbollah-related” targets, some have hit Syrian facilities. In view of these repeated violations of Syrian sovereignty it is difficult to see how Israel can claim the moral ground in the conflict.

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But the real issue of course is the practical cost attached to these violations. Before the latest clash, Israel was able to operate within Syrian air space with apparent impunity, arguing before international public opinion that it was merely enforcing “red lines” in relation to its deadly enemy Hezbollah.

Until recently both the Syrians and Hezbollah had appeared to be so embroiled in Syria’s complex conflict as to be deeply reluctant – or even physically unable – to open a new front with Israel inside Syria. The situation has now clearly changed, as demonstrated by the strong message of defiance from Syrian air defence forces.

At the same time, Israel’s operational priorities have shifted. Whereas before Israel was primarily concerned with hitting Hezbollah-related targets, and specifically the alleged transfer of sophisticated weapons to the Lebanese group, its attention now is focussed on Iran’s military presence in Syria.

Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel will not “tolerate” Iran’s presence in Syria. While this may be an over-statement of Israel’s real position, nevertheless the degree of Israeli anxiety over Iran’s “entrenchment” in Syria was underscored by the ferocity of the Israeli response to the downing of the F-16 fighter jet. According to credible reports, Israel reportedly struck no fewer than four Iranian “positions” in Syria.

Enter Russia

Much of the expert analysis on the escalation of tensions between Israel and the “Axis of Resistance” focusses on Israel’s purported “red lines”, notably Israel’s sensitivity on the south-west of Syria, specifically the areas adjacent to the occupied Golan Heights.

This focus on the Golan Heights and the 1974 armistice line is evident in the latest International Crisis Group report on the conflict. This attention on the south-west of Syria flies in the face of the fact that Israeli leaders and officials have repeatedly declared that they consider the entire Iranian military presence in Syria as a red line.

Another feature of recent reporting is that Russia holds the key to de-escalation in this conflict. This assessment appears to be on solid ground, not only in terms of Russia’s decisive role in the broader Syrian conflict, but more specifically on account of Russia’s effective control of Syrian air space.

Hitherto, Russia has not intervened in the conflict, a position that has raised eyebrows in view of Moscow’s alliance with Damascus. Russian accommodation of Israeli concerns – illustrated by Moscow turning a blind eye to repeated Israeli air strikes on Syrian soil – is in part indicative of Russia’s desire to contain Iranian influence in Syria.

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Russia’s mild tilt toward Israel on this issue is evident in foreign minister Segey Lavrov’s strong rebuke of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani’s prediction of Israel’s “destruction” at a ceremony commemorating the tenth anniversary of the assassination of legendary Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh.

An all-out war between Israel and Iran is inimical to Russia’s interests in Syria, inasmuch as it threatens Russian gains in the past two and a half years. Moreover, a major conflict is equally inimical to Russia’s broader position in the region in so far as the fallout from an all-out war will likely take years to stabilise.

Both the Iranians and the Israelis have to pay strong attention to the Russian position as they manage the conflict in the critical months ahead. More clashes are inevitable as both sides are still in the early phase of testing each other’s resolve, defences and reactions.

A major war in the mid to long-term is still a distinct possibility as the protagonists will find it next to impossible to reach an accommodation in Syria and the wider Levant. It remains to be seen if Russia has the diplomatic skills and the strategic patience to prevent a catastrophic regional war.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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