On Wednesday afternoon, sirens sounded in a dozen communities in northern Israel. A Syrian drone had entered Israeli airspace, flying for 10 km. over the Golan Heights before being shot down by a Patriot missile. Two attack helicopters and four fighter jets were scrambled to counter the threat.
Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon warned the Security Council of the destabilizing activities taking place in Syria. “Israel holds the Syrian government accountable for every attack originating from its territory. We will not tolerate breaches of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement and we will continue to defend our citizens and our territory,” Danon said.
The drone infiltration comes amid heightened tensions due to a Syrian regime offensive in the country’s south that was launched last month. Since mid-June, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled fighting and the Syrian rebels have suffered numerous setbacks.
The situation on the Golan is combustible. Thousands of Syrians displaced by the fighting have fled to the border, clustering in between the 1974 cease-fire lines called Alpha and Bravo. They huddle near the border fence and some hold up signs asking for protection. Since the offensive began the Syrians have wondered why the world has abandoned them to Assad’s brutality. They have been asking that for seven years and it appears much of the world has fatigue for the suffering of the people in Syria. To Israel’s credit Operation Good Neighbor has been a shining light unto the nations, showcasing humanitarian aid and also medical aid that has helped thousands of Syrians.
The larger threat now, is to Israel’s security and the need for Jerusalem not to allow incidents like the drone to become the “new normal” in the North, similar to the reality Hamas has created in the South. For years during the Syrian conflict the main threat was spillover from fighting on the other side. This took the form of mortars that sometimes fell inside the Golan. Israel retaliated against the Syrian regime, sending a message to keep the civil war on the other side of the line. This usually worked.
But as the regime has grown in power over the last year it has become more arrogant. The Iranian backers of Damascus have used the chaos of the Syrian conflict to extend their octopus-like tentacles throughout Syria.
First, this involved Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operatives and advisors. Then came the mercenaries, recruited from poor Shi’ite families in Afghanistan and elsewhere, sent to die as cannon fodder so Bashar Assad and his family could continue their rule. Then came the more sophisticated militias, including Shi’ite militias from Iraq like Kataib Hezbollah. This was part of Iran’s plan to create a corridor to the sea that involves influence, proxies and weapons transfers. Israel has struck these threats more than 100 times in five years.
In the last six months, the threats have grown. An Iranian drone flew into Israel near Beit Shean in February. A salvo of twenty rockets was fired at the Golan in May.
Each action has led to a reaction by Israel, usually punishing Iran and the Syrian regime. But the attacks have not deterred the regime or Tehran. Tehran knows that it can continue to threaten Israel in a variety of ways. Israel has sought to warn Damascus via Moscow to stop the Iranian threat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly stressed that Iran must leave Syria. Assad responds that there are no Iranian forces in Syria. Beneath the war of words the airstrikes and Iranian presence continue.
In retaliation for the drone incursion, the IDF struck three targets in Syria. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has warned that Syria must refrain from any actions that violate the border area. “I made it clear here, both to the commanders and to the representatives of the UN Disengagement Observer Force that any Syrian entering into the buffer zone, every Syrian soldier in the buffer zone, would endanger his soul.”
A new report at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argues that “Israel now seeks to ensure this does not develop into a pattern, where Iran is allowed to test Israel and simply absorb limited retribution.”
On the heels of Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow and US President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week, the message must be clear: Iran must leave Syria.
The regime and Moscow must take this seriously and not continue the rhetorical charade of claiming there are no Iranian forces in Syria or that they are not “foreign” or that they consist merely of militias or advisors. The Golan border must not become another Gaza, it must remain quiet or Assad will pay the price for allowing threats to fester.