Israeli jet downing ratchets up tensions in Syrian conflict
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The Syrian conflagration was exacerbated Saturday with the crashing of an Israeli fighter jet amid Syrian anti-aircraft fire, marking the first time Israel has lost an aircraft in the seven-year conflict.
According to the Israeli military, the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) intercepted an Iranian drone launched from Syria over Israeli airspace. The drone is believed to be in Israeli possession and it was not immediately known if the UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle) was armed or strictly for reconnaissance.
Shortly after the interception, Israeli jets flew over Syrian airspace to target “Iranian-controlled systems in Syria that sent the UAV into Israeli airspace”, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said on Twitter. The Israeli aerial incursion was met with “massive” Syrian anti-aircraft fire, said Conricus, adding that “one F16 crashed in Israel, pilots safe”.
One of the two pilots who ejected from the F16 was seriously wounded and taken to hospital.
IDF has targeted the Iranian control systems in Syria that sent the #UAV into Israeli airspace. Massive Syrian Anti-Air fire, one F16 crashed in Israel, pilots safe. #Iran is responsible for this severe violation of Israeli sovereignty. Event ongoing, more to follow.Jonathan Conricus (@LTCJonathan) February 10, 2018
Syrian state TV however said Israeli “aggression” targeted a Syrian army base in the central Homs region and that in response, the Syrian air force had shot down more than one Israeli aircraft.
A statement by the military alliance supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Israeli claims that a drone entering Israeli airspace were a “lie”. The drones had left the T4 air base Saturday morning to conduct routine operations against Islamic State (IS) group targets in the Syrian Desert, according to the alliance. “When the base was targeted our aircraft were still flying over the town of Sokhna, towards the desert,” the statement noted. Sokhna is a town northeast of the historic city of Palmyra in central Syria.
Syria maintained the Israeli raid had struck Syrian -- and not Iranian -- targets, a line echoed by an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, who dismissed Israeli allegations of Iranian drone surveillance as “too ridiculous for words” in an interview with the AFP.
The conflicting versions were a familiar recital in a region where neighbouring states have officially been in a state of war that has been largely waged via proxies and propaganda assaults for decades.
“We have two very different versions of the events, which in turn serves domestic politics. On the Syrian side, Syria and Israel are officially at war, they have no diplomatic relations and from the Syrian perspective, Israel is the enemy. So, while Syria is struggling with a civil war, an internal conflict, pointing at an outside enemy is somehow a way of unifying people against one common enemy,” said FRANCE 24’s Chloé Domat, reporting from the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
Is Iran upping the ante?
But while the rhetoric was familiar, Saturday’s events marked several dangerous firsts in a volatile area that has seen regional and global powers moving their chess pieces at an alarming rate.
While Israel has launched raids into Syrian airspace since the uprising against Assad broke out in 2011, it marked the first time an Israeli aircraft came under attack by Syrian forces. The fact that Israel very clearly and very early pointed the finger of blame at Iran also marked a dangerous escalation of tensions in the Middle East.
“In Israel, they see Iranian fingerprints on this,” said FRANCE 24’s Irris Makler, reporting from Jerusalem. “It’s as if a decision has been made, because this is not anything that is different, in one way, to what we have seen over the past seven years of the Syrian war. When there has been something that enters Israeli territory, Israeli planes respond. What’s different now is that the Syrian air force has replied and that’s why we see that Israeli F16 in the end being actually destroyed.”
Iran has backed the Assad regime since the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011. The entry of Tehran-backed Shiite ground forces such as Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict two years later sparked concerns in Israel. These fears have been mounting as both Assad and his fellow-Shiite backer, Iran, have been extending their influence in Syria.
The Syrian decision to respond to the latest Israeli aerial incursion, according to Makler, opened new questions in the Middle East conflict.
“What’s different now is that [the Syrian response] is a decision. Is that a decision of the Syrian president? It seems that he [Assad] doesn’t make these decisions on his own. And there is a suggestion, since it was an Iranian drone that began this, that somebody -- and that somebody is Tehran -- is making a decision that there should be an escalation in the tension on the northern border of Israel,” explained Makler.
That view was echoed by retired IDF spokesman Peter Lerner on Twitter: “1. The Iranians are famous for being long-term strategists, so the drone was clearly a planned provocation. 2. Iran wants to dictate new red lines from Syria’s perspective. 3. Iran’s message is clear Israel no longer has a free pass to operate unhindered in Syria.”
My thoughts 1/2LTC (R) Peter Lerner (@LTCPeterLerner) February 10, 2018
1. The Iranians are famous for being long-term strategists, so the drone was clearly a planned provocation. 2. Iran wants to dictate new red lines from Syria’s perspective. 3. Iran’s message is clear Israel no longer has a free pass to operate unhindered in Syria. pic.twitter.com/TZcORpdjkz
‘A new strategic phase’
In the fallout of the Israeli jet downing and incursions, the responses from Assad’s supporters appeared to back that analysis.
A joint statement issued by Iran alongside Russia and Hezbollah on Saturday afternoon vowed a “relentless response” to Israeli “aggression”.
A Russian foreign ministry statement said, "It is absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian soldiers that are in the Syrian Arab Republic on the invitation of the legal government to assist in the fight against terrorism," adding that Moscow "interpreted the latest developments and attacks on Syria with serious concern".
Israeli officials however sought to play down the threat of a conflict escalation, but conceded that it could be a tall order under the circumstances. "The tough part is how to continue to walk a tightrope, where neither side wants an all-out war, but no one wants to be the one who absorbed the blow and didn't respond appropriately," Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said on Israel's Channel 11 TV.
While Syria has for decades avoided taking on the might of the Israeli military despite its frequent forays into Syrian airspace, the unprecedented F-16 downing was hailed by Hezbollah. Congratulating the Syrian military for its “brave confrontation of the aggressing Israeli planes,” a Hezbollah statement maintained it marked the start of “a new strategic phase” that would put an end to the violation of Syrian territory.
Adding Lebanon to the mix
But with an ever-growing number of regional, Arab and international players getting sucked into the Syrian conflict, the prospect of an end to the violation of Syrian territory is slim.
As tensions between Israel and Iran escalate, Lebanon -- a tiny, multi-religious nation that is home to Hezbollah and has a history of getting ensnared in the geopolitical war games of the region -- could once again be a staging ground for the latest twist in the longstanding Middle East conflict.
A Lebanese foreign ministry statement issued Saturday said Beirut planned to write a letter of protest to the UN over the use of its airspace for the Israeli raids.
Tensions between Israel and Lebanon has spiked in recent months over Israeli plans for a border wall and a Lebanese bid for offshore gas exploration on the countries’ maritime border.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described Lebanon’s exploration tender as “very provocative” and suggested that Lebanon had put out invitations for bids from international groups for a gas field “which is by all accounts ours”.
Lieberman’s comments drew sharp condemnation from Hezbollah and Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Western ally, who described them as a “blatant provocation that Lebanon rejects”.
We are deeply concerned about today's escalation of violence and support #Israel's right to defend itself. We continue to push back on the totality of #Iran's malign activities which threaten peace and stability in the region. pic.twitter.com/OfFB9cE2tBHeather Nauert (@statedeptspox) February 10, 2018
Saturday’s downing of the Israeli F16 comes as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepares for a regional visit next week that will include stops in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Kuwait.
Since he was elected, US President Donald Trump has been a firm backer of the Israeli position against Iran, frequently threatening to pull out of the multinational Iranian nuclear deal signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The Trump administration is also a vocal supporter of Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, an arch foe of Shiite Iran.
With the latest escalation of Israeli-Iranian tensions in Syria, Tillerson will have a delicate mission trying to deescalate the situation in Syria as Washington pushes for a 30-day ceasefire in a war that has no end in the sight.