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
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.