All is not quiet on the Syrian front

The downing of an Israeli fighter aircraft by Syria’s air defense system represents an operational and propaganda success for the Assad regime. The wider picture, however, is much more complex. One take on the recent escalation is that the risk of full-scale conflict has risen significantly.

Israel’s large-scale military response to the downing of its jet sent a clear message to the Iranians and Syrians: Israeli intelligence knows more about them than they realized.

This was illustrated by Israel’s ability to track the Iranian drone that intruded into Israeli air space and destroy it quickly, the subsequent destruction of the drone’s mobile command vehicle (probably with the Iranian operators inside), and the striking of Iranian targets in Syria. This was accompanied by a major attack on Assad’s air defenses.

Despite its scope, Israel’s retaliation was proportionate, and signaled that Jerusalem does not wish to allow the incident to turn into full-scale war.

Until now, Israel and Iran have conducted low profile warfare, but on February 10th, the fight became overt and direct. This development changed the picture, and might have far-reaching consequences.

Israel’s Warning

This sequence of events bears testament to Israel’s determination to respond forcefully to any future provocation, or violation of its sovereignty. It also made clear that Israel could quickly destroy the remainder of the Assad regime’s air defenses, which is an extensive and sophisticated system that took Damascus many years to build.
It was also a display of intimate Israeli intelligence knowledge of Iran’s military presence in Syria.

Ultimately, these actions hint at a bigger warning by Israel.

Throughout the seven years of Syria’s civil war, Israel has stayed out of the conflict, with the exception of reported strikes against the smuggling of sophisticated arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. While Jerusalem is not present at the table of talks aimed at military and political arrangements in post-civil war Syria (whenever that may occur), Israel’s vital interests still have to be taken into consideration.

Jerusalem could have a major influence on post-war Syria. If it is pushed, Israel could act directly against assets that are dearest to the Assad regime.

Israel is dealing with an inbuilt imbalance when confronting Iran in the region. Tehran is operating on Israel’s border, threatening the Israeli homeland from neighboring Lebanon and Syria, even though Israel shares no border with Iran.

Therefore, Israel cannot remain aloof to an arrangement that allows Iran, and its proxy, Hezbollah, to consolidate themselves in Syria.

Russia and Iran: A Divergence of Interests

Russia plays a central role in this equation, and its interests are diverging from those of Iran.

Moscow, like Iran and Hezbollah, saved the Assad regime, investing great financial and military resources, and absorbing losses. Assad is returning the favor by letting Russia expand its strategic military presence on Syrian soil. Tehran too wishes to build a military power base on Syrian territory. Yet while Moscow and Tehran stood together to save the Assad regime, their interests do not necessarily align.

Russia is interested in ensuring its long-term military presence in western Syria, on the shores of the Mediterranean, namely, its naval and air bases. In addition, America’s perceived abandonment of this arena – or at least its lack of interest, except for the campaign against ISIS – has dramatically strengthened Putin’s diplomatic regional posture.

Thus, Russia now wishes to see an end to the war and a return to a stable situation, one where it is the dominant power.

The insistence of Iran and the weak Assad regime to act in a way that could deteriorate the region and drag it into a new war, thereby harming the assets that Moscow has invested much in, runs contrary to Russian interest.

Jerusalem takes Russia’s ambitions and interests in Syria into account, yet it also insists that its own vital interests are taken on board. When these interests are challenged by Iran or its proxies, Israel has no choice but to act, as it did on February 10th and as it has done many times in the past. This is certainly a delicate state of affairs, one which requires a masterful dance, to avoid accidentally stepping on the toes of others.

After the recent military clash, all sides will go back to the drawing board and evaluate the situation in light of the changing reality. This is a highly complex and explosive picture. No side wants to be dragged into war. Still, the danger of large-scale conflict has grown greatly.

More Trouble Brewing

Officials in Damascus and Tehran appear to be encouraged by the downing of the Israeli F-16, and could be tempted to raise the level of their activities and military build-up.

With Israel continuing to protect its critical interests, and Iran continuing its build-up in Syria, a dynamic is evolving that could lead to additional and perhaps even more severe clashes – possibly in the near future.

Russia has an important potential role to play here, to limit Iran’s actions in Syria. Doing so would enable Moscow to cash in its dividends from its investment in the ‘Syrian project.’

What is missing from this picture is a more assertive American policy vis-à-vis Iran in general, and in regards to its spread in Syria and Lebanon in particular.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just completed a diplomatic tour in the Middle East. This is important, but still insufficient. Such a visit should be part of a policy that makes it clear to all sides that Washington is not ditching the Middle East, and that this region is vital to the United States’ superpower interests and its global standing.

In the meantime, the region will continue to be on the brink of larger conflict.

Edited By Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited By Jared Sapolsky

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.

About the Author
Ambassador Arthur Koll is the former Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he concluded his service as the head of the Media and Public Affairs Division. He is a former Ambassador of Israel to the Republic of Serbia and to Montenegro and served as instructor of the National Defense College. Mr. Koll also served as Consul of the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, USA.
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