Mid­dle East does not need an­other war

There is a se­ri­ous need to de­ter a more se­ri­ous con­fla­gra­tion in Syria be­fore it’s too late

Gulf News - - The Views - Ronen Bergman is an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and au­thor. Ronen Bergman

In the early hours of Satur­day morn­ing, the Mid­dle East was on the brink of yet an­other war.

Dur­ing the night Is­rael’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices had been track­ing an Ira­nian drone that was launched by the Quds di­vi­sion of Iran’s elite Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps from the Tiyas air­base in cen­tral Syria.

A minute and a half af­ter the drone en­tered Is­raeli airspace, an Is­raeli Air Force at­tack he­li­copter shot it out of the sky. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, eight Is­raeli fighter jets fired mis­siles at the drone’s com­mand and con­trol cen­tre at Tiyas, blow­ing it up, along with the Ira­ni­ans man­ning the cen­tre. (Tehran has de­nied that its drone was shot down or that its troops were killed.)

The Syr­ian mil­i­tary, al­lied with Iran, re­sponded by fir­ing sur­face-to-air mis­siles at the Is­raeli jets. The mis­siles locked onto two Is­raeli air­craft.

One of these man­aged to evade the rock­ets, but the other was hit by frag­ments of the ex­plod­ing mis­sile. The two-man crew ejected and landed in Is­raeli ter­ri­tory. One of them was gravely wounded.

This was the first air­craft that Is­rael had lost in com­bat since 1982, and its air force, its rep­u­ta­tion for in­vin­ci­bil­ity in­jured, re­sponded an­grily by strik­ing at the Syr­ian air de­fence sys­tem.

The Is­raeli bom­bard­ments of the air­base had been dan­ger­ously close to Rus­sian forces. A fu­ri­ous phone call on Satur­day morn­ing from Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin of Rus­sia was enough to make Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu of Is­rael can­cel plans of any of­fen­sive op­er­a­tion.

Pub­licly as well, the Rus­sians ve­he­mently con­demned Is­rael’s vi­o­la­tion of Syr­ian sovereignty, mak­ing no men­tion of the Ira­nian drone’s in­cur­sion into Is­raeli airspace. War was averted — but only for now.

All of the in­gre­di­ents for an ex­tremely vi­o­lent erup­tion in the Mid­dle East re­main in place. Iran was the first coun­try to come to the aid of Pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad when the Syr­ian civil war broke out six years ago. Join­ing the Ira­ni­ans were units from Hezbol­lah. It is thanks to these forces that the Al As­sad regime has sur­vived.

For its part, Is­rael has con­ducted more than 100 bomb­ing and mis­sile raids in Syria, with­out ever ad­mit­ting it or tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, against stor­age sites for weapons and con­voys sup­ply­ing the Ira­nian-led forces.

Se­cret com­mu­ni­ca­tions chan­nel

When Rus­sian forces en­tered Syria in 2015 and it be­came clear that the United States would not take real mea­sures to counter Putin’s moves, Ne­tanyahu man­aged to set up a se­cret com­mu­ni­ca­tions chan­nel be­tween him­self and the Rus­sian pres­i­dent, ac­cord­ing to sources in Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence, as well as an en­crypted phone line for com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Is­rael and the Rus­sian mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence in or­der to pre­vent clashes be­tween Is­raeli and Rus­sian forces in Syria.

As an Al As­sad vic­tory ap­proaches, Is­rael has been ask­ing Rus­sia to guar­an­tee that the Ira­ni­ans will leave Syria once the war is over.

Those re­quests have been met with in­dif­fer­ence in Moscow. Rus­sia wants to build a se­cure foothold in the Mid­dle East and its pol­icy re­quires it to main­tain good re­la­tions with Iran.

Is­rael has also asked the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sev­eral times to do some­thing to stop the sit­u­a­tion from de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. Tel Aviv has “de­manded” that any peace agree­ment in Syria re­quire the re­moval of Hezbol­lah and Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps troops from the coun­try.

The Amer­i­cans, how­ever, didn’t agree to de­liver. “We do not al­to­gether un­der­stand what this ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to achieve,” I was told by one of the par­tic­i­pants in the talks, “and truth be told we are not at all sure that our in­ter­locu­tors on the Amer­i­can side know what they want or what the pres­i­dent had told them to achieve. The gen­eral feel­ing is one of con­fu­sion and chaos.”

The con­duct of the United States, which has largely with­drawn from the Mid­dle East, in the face of the Ira­nian and Rus­sian pres­ence in Syria has prompted frus­tra­tion to­wards Amer­ica in parts of the Is­raeli mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties.

Re­cent events made two things clear: First, Is­rael will no longer be able to act in Syria with­out lim­i­ta­tions.

The joint forces op­posed to it will from now on re­act with vigour. Se­cond, if any­one was not yet aware of it, Rus­sia is the dom­i­nant power in the re­gion.

This week­end’s events brought the con­fronta­tion be­tween Is­rael and Iran into the open air, mak­ing the prospect of a big­ger con­flict more im­me­di­ate and more men­ac­ing.

Is­rael may be one of the strong­est mil­i­tary pow­ers in the Mid­dle East, but wars are un­pre­dictable.

And ev­ery­one — from Moscow to oc­cu­pied Jerusalem to Wash­ing­ton — should want to de­ter an even more se­ri­ous con­fla­gra­tion in Syria be­fore it’s too late.

The re­cent es­ca­la­tion in the re­gion fol­low­ing the down­ing of an Is­raeli F-16 fighter jet by the Syr­ian air de­fence was the topic that topped the head­lines in the Ara­bic lan­guage press across the re­gion this week. P ales­tine’s Al Quds news­pa­per said the shoot­ing down of the Is­raeli war­plane af­ter it en­tered Syria’s airspace teaches Is­rael’s right-wing gov­ern­ment a tough les­son — that it can­not con­tinue with its ag­gres­sion against Syria, Le­banon and the Pales­tinian re­sis­tance in Gaza with­out pay­ing the price.

Da­m­as­cus’ re­tal­i­a­tion means that any Is­raeli at­tack will no longer be tol­er­ated but will be faced with a tough re­tal­i­a­tion by Syria, which de­spite the seven-year con­flict, still has the power to hit back, and will not re­main silent to­wards the re­peated in­cur­sions in its ter­ri­to­ries. The pa­per be­lieves that this marks the be­gin­ning of a new strate­gic phase that puts an end to Is­rael’s vi­o­la­tion of Syria’s airspace. Is­rael will have to think 10 times be­fore launch­ing a new at­tack.

In its ed­i­to­rial ti­tled ‘When the rules of en­gage­ment are de­stroyed’ Syria’s Al Thawra news­pa­per re­buffed Is­raeli claims to jus­tify its re­peated at­tacks on Syria’s mil­i­tary forces’ po­si­tions. Although down­ing the Is­raeli war­plane does not mean an es­ca­la­tion to­ward a fullfledged war, it is a strong mes­sage that Syria will no longer ac­cept hit-and-run at­tacks by Is­rael, which has re­peat­edly tar­geted the po­si­tions of Syr­ian forces dur­ing the past seven years.

Is­rael’s re­ac­tion, how­ever, in­di­cated that the Zion­ist en­tity is not ready for a real war, be­cause it knows that the ‘axis of re­sis­tance’, com­pris­ing Iran and Hezbol­lah, will not stand idle.

The new de­vel­op­ment breaks the stereo­type that Is­rael can vi­o­late any Arab airspace with im­punity, es­pe­cially that the in­ci­dence marks the first time that an Is­raeli war­plane has been shot down prob­a­bly since the down­ing of an Is­raeli F-14 in 1982 over Le­banon.

Jor­da­nian Ara­bic daily, Al Ghad said the Syr­i­ans have fi­nally ex­er­cised what they have al­ways de­scribed as the “right of re­tal­i­a­tion” against airstrikes launched by the Is­raeli en­tity in Syria. An­a­lysts be­lieve that the tim­ing of down­ing the Is­raeli fighter jet is at­trib­uted to sev­eral fac­tors, in­clud­ing the Syr­ian regime’s per­sua­sion of hav­ing achieved more vic­to­ries in the do­mes­tic war.

Da­m­as­cus is more in­ter­ested in strength­en­ing its in­ter­nal po­si­tion than open­ing up a new front or en­gag­ing in a war with Is­rael.

An­a­lysts have long warned that Pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad and his Rus­sian and Ira­nian al­lies are grow­ing stronger in Syria. The ques­tion arises here is: Would the ac­tual play­ers in Syria — both Rus­sia and Iran — have al­lowed the Syr­ian regime to use its air de­fences? Was the Is­raeli war­plane downed by Rus­sians or Ira­ni­ans?

Although Is­rael launched many airstrikes in Syria dur­ing the seven-year con­flict, the Syr­i­ans had never re­tal­i­ated — mak­ing this the first time it has hit back. What hap­pened to cause this change of the rules of en­gage­ment? The com­ing days will re­veal it all, the Jor­da­nian pa­per con­cluded.

Oman’s Al Watan Ara­bic daily ar­gued that the Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion en­tity ex­changes roles once with the ter­ror­ist Daesh group or with the Amer­i­cans by launch­ing at­tacks against Syria in their pur­suit to weaken Da­m­as­cus. How­ever, Syria’s de­ci­sive re­ply was man­i­fested in the shoot­ing down of the Is­raeli F-16 fighter jet.

In do­ing so, Da­m­as­cus has launched a new strat­egy that will en­sure Syria airspace is no longer ex­ploited by Is­raeli war­planes. The pa­per says that the jet crash rep­re­sented a se­vere blow to Is­rael’s pres­tige.

Ra­machan­dra Babu/©Gulf News

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