Tensions between two bitter old enemies, Israel and Syria, have flared up again.
On March 17, Israeli F-16s struck a Syrian military site near the city of Palmyra, reportedly bombing a convoy of vehicles carrying Scud missiles to Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. Syria retaliated by firing several S-200 missiles at the Israeli jets flying back to base.
Israel, in turn, downed one of the incoming Syrian missiles over the Jordan Valley. Israel brought it down with its Arrow anti-missile defence system in its first operational use.
This incident, regarded as the most serious military clash between Israel and Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, was significant for two reasons. The Syrians, since the outbreak of that war, had never responded to an Israeli attack with such ferocity. And for the first time, Israel took credit for a specific air strike against a Hezbollah convoy in Syria.
Before last week’s operation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman had acknowledged responsibility for Israeli air attacks in Syria only in general terms.
In fact, the Israeli Air Force has been targeting Hezbollah convoys for several years now. Israel initiated these strikes to staunch the flow of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah, which has called for Israel’s destruction. Nonetheless, Hezbollah has succeeded in rebuilding its military strength since its three-week war with Israel in the summer in 2006. By one estimate, Hezbollah has 150,000 missiles in its arsenal. Hezbollah, allied with Syria and Iran, is thus viewed as a potent threat in Israel.
In the wake of the latest incident, Russia summoned the Israeli ambassador in Moscow, Gary Koren, to protest Israel’s penetration of Syrian air space. Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, claimed that Russia, its closest ally outside the Middle East, had sent a clear message to Israel that the rules of the game have changed in Syria and that Israel’s freedom to act with impunity in Syrian skies has ended.
Israel was not intimidated by Jaafari’s rhetoric.
In short order, Liberman threatened to destroy Syrian air defence systems the next time they fire on Israeli planes attacking Hezbollah targets. And on March 19, Israeli aircraft reappeared in Syria again, strafing a vehicle on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and killing its occupant, a Syrian operative suspected of planning attacks against Israel.
Countering Jaafari’s claim that Russia had upbraided Israel, Netanyahu denied reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin had told Israeli to cease air raids in Syria. “It’s simply incorrect to say the Russians are changing their policy toward us,” he said.
Netanyahu, who last met with Putin in Moscow on March 9, added that Israel and Russia continue to observe a coordination mechanism established in 2015 to prevent accidental clashes between their respective aircraft in Syria’s crowded skies.
In September 2015, in response to a succession of Syrian rebel victories on the battlefield, Russia upgraded its alliance with Syria by dispatching a relatively small number of aircraft and ground support crews to Syria. Since then, the Russians, in concert with Hezbollah, Iran and an assortment of Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, have managed to tilt the war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.
The Syrian government, however, is still a long way from winning it. Fierce fighting still rages across the country, even in the suburbs of Damascus. But with the help of his allies, Assad has recaptured considerable swaths of territory lost in 2013 and 2014 to Islamic State, Al Qaeda and a host of Syrian rebel groups supported by Turkey, conservative Arab Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the United States.
Assad, who was recently quoted as saying that Israel is still Syria’s only enemy, has channelled tons of state-of-the-art weapons to Hezbollah from Iran in the past two decades. With this in mind, Netanyahu said he had told Putin that Israel will not accept the transfer of advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah. Netanyahu also let it be known that Israel will not tolerate a buildup of Iranian forces in the Syrian sector of the Golan.
“It’s our policy to strike at the convoys of sophisticated weaponry, and the Iranians continue with them,” he said. “We will continue to attack whenever the Iranians smuggled advanced arms. If there’s intelligence and operational feasibility, we strike, and so it will continue.”
Putin appears to have accepted Israel’s rationale for striking Hezbollah convoys in Syria, but Israel realizes that Moscow would not take kindly to attacks that could jeopardize Assad’s grip on Syria.
Certainly, Russia has not exerted public pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Israel and Syria conducted a series of bilateral and indirect talks on the future of the Golan, but these public and secret negotiations yielded no tangible results.
Now that Syria is embroiled in a war that has displaced millions of its citizens and claimed the lives of more than 400,000 soldiers and civilians, Israel is even less likely to give up the Golan, a lightly-populated volcanic plateau the Syrian regime tried to regain in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Prior to the Six Day War, Syria bombarded Israeli kibbutzim from the vantage point of the Golan, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s only freshwater lake.
Last April, in his most definitive statement on the Golan, Netanyahu said, “The time has come for the international community to recognize reality, especially two basic facts. One, whatever is beyond the border, the boundary itself will not change. Two, after 50 years, the time has come for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan will remain under Israel’s sovereignty permanently.”
In other words, Israel is prepared to defend the status quo on the Golan, regardless of developments in Syria’s raging civil war.