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The rules of engagement between Syria and Israel

January 23, 2019 at 4:22 pm

Israel has, so far, succeeded in imposing its own rules of engagement on Syria and Iraq. Barely a week goes by without Israeli warplanes launching missile attacks on Syrian (Iranian) targets, usually on sensitive sites such as the Damascus International Airport and surrounding areas. It causes physical and human losses every time. Israel’s hostility is a means for it to bare its teeth, and instead of chalking these operations up to an anonymous party, Israel is now directly announcing its responsibility for these attacks in a challenge to Damascus, and more specifically Tehran, as a way to express its disregard of Moscow and those behind it.

Since February last year, when Syrian air defence shot down an Israeli warplane, Damascus, Tehran and Beirut’s southern suburb, have been talking about “changing the rules of engagement”. This team’s position is reinforced by Moscow’s decision to bring in S-300 missiles to Damascus and Israel’s air force ceasing to infiltrate Syrian airspace. However, this did not last long, as Israel resumed its attacks across all of Syria, avoiding the areas in the north-western part of the country, where the Russian military bases are located.

What is new about the rules of engagement between the two sides is the fact that the Syrian air force is more capable to thwart Israeli missiles. So far, Israel is cautious about infiltrating Syrian airspace with its planes and instead is content with launching missiles from over Lebanese air space. However, despite the successes achieved by the Syrian air force, which the people witnessed with their own eyes and live on air, the Israeli missiles that do ultimately reach their target are enough to cause extreme damage and losses. This is also accompanied by messages of superiority and a sea of non-stop threats of driving Iran out of Syria until the last Iranian soldier returns to his country.

READ: Israel minister threatens Syria’s Assad over Iran presence

The most recent attack around the Damascus airport was different than those that came before it in terms of the intensity of the missiles and the expansion of the target area. Furthermore, the ground-to-ground missiles were launched from Syria against Israeli targets. These developments suggest that the two sides are on the edge of the cliff and that despite the fact that neither want to risk igniting a full-fledged war, none of them can stop the deterioration of the situation.

Damascus is doing everything it can to limit losses and contain the attacks, but it does not have access to the defences capable of preventing Israeli infiltrations. It also does not seem to have the green light to use the S-300 missiles and attack Israeli planes over Lebanese air space. Iran does not want a war and there is not enough power in Syria to change the rules of engagement unless it decides to open the Lebanese front against Israel. This decision will have major consequences that Iran does not seem capable of dealing with or has a desire to deal with, specifically in this instance. In either case, the two allied capitals cannot stand by and sustain Israeli attacks without taking action or with humble reactions, such as the reactions they have had in the past years. The cost of this option is also very high.

The party in the most awkward position is Moscow, as its strategic decision is to avoid confrontation with Israel. It knows that confrontation with Israel means confrontation with the US and Moscow did not come to Syria for this purpose. It has displayed extreme caution in handing Syria weapons that would break the balance of power with Israel. It is not unlikely that the Kremlin wants to utilise Israel’s attacks to convince Iran to reduce its presence in Syria. I say reduce, not eliminate, because the Syrian crisis is still facing major battles in Idlib and the rural areas surrounding it, and perhaps even in other areas in the future, and without Iran it is difficult for Moscow’s allies to fight major ground battles in Syria.

READ: Israel warplanes strike targets in Syria

However, Israel’s arrogance and its tendency to go too far put Moscow in a very awkward position, especially since it continued, expanded, and damaged sensitive and strategic sites, as it did in the latest attack. Such behaviour on Israel’s part drives a wedge between Moscow and Tehran and Damascus and weakens the Kremlin’s credibility. It also threatens all of Russia’s achievements in Syria. The Kremlin’s difficult options between its allies and friends, including Israel, seem very limited. If it stands by idly and takes no action, then the events and developments in Syria may pass it by and would undermine its achievements.

I do not know how the Kremlin will act and what offers it can make to Israel that Damascus and Tehran will also accept. I do not know what form the settlement can take on that can satisfy Israel’s arrogance, preserve Damascus’ security, and save face for Tehran. This is a very complicated equation that is definitely no less complicated than the Syrian “northern equation” where Moscow is standing confused between its Syrian and Iranian allies on one side and Turkey and its allies on the other, while the Kurds and their American supporters are on a third side.

This article appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 23 January 2019

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