The Middle East held its breath on Saturday, as photos of an Israeli F16
went viral on social media networks — or, rather, photos of what remained of the fighter after it crashed to the ground, in northern Israel, in the early hours of the morning.
The plane was downed by Syria’s air defenses after illegally entering Syrian airspace, reportedly while chasing an Iranian drone. The
two Israeli pilots onboard managed to eject themselves and escape unharmed, despite the “massive fire” that torched their plane. Israel retaliated immediately, striking 12 targets within Syria. One was in al-Kisweh, 13km south of Damascus; another was the town of al-Dimas, west of the Syrian capital, which had been previously hit by Israeli missiles back in December 2014, when it was believed to be housing Hezbollah troops.
A third strike targeted the T-4 Airport, west of the ancient city of Palmyra, which was, supposedly, being used by Iranian forces returning from fighting in Deir ez-Zour.
Meanwhile, jubilant members of Hezbollah handed out sweets on the streets of Beirut, celebrating the first downing of an Israeli warplane since the Lebanon War in 1983. Syrian Television interrupted normal service to broadcast patriotic songs in praise of the armed forces, and various Palestinian groups, including Hamas, hailed the operation as a “great victory.”
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for an immediate
meeting with top Israeli Army brass, and Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu consulted with his military advisers, exploring “all options.” IDF spokesman Ronen Mandis said: “This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into a situation in which it doesn’t know how it will end.”
Fearing that the situation might actually slip out of control, Ben Gurion Airport was temporarily closed on Saturday morning – although by noon, life had fairly much returned to normal on both sides of the Syrian-Israeli border. The balance of fear paying off, perhaps, both Iran and Israel appeared to have climbed down by Sunday.
Since returning to office in 2009, Netanyahu has been itching for a war with Iran. He slammed the Nuclear Deal of 2015, saying that it only rewarded the Iranians for “years of misbehavior,” showing them that “terrorism pays off.” As far as the Israeli Premier was concerned, the Syrian conflict was worrying only insofar as it brought Iran and Hezbollah right to his country’s borders with Syria.
Last year, he tabled a bill empowering himself, as head of government, to declare war without waiting for approval from his entire cabinet – a clear message to the Iranians. More recently, he has held massive military drills on the borders with Syria.
Time and again since 2011, the IDF has bombed positions inside the war-torn country – believed to be Iranian missile factories, weapons storehouses, convoys, and military camps, and all of them manned by Hezbollah.
It shows the Israelis that such aerial incursions will no longer be tolerated, but it also sends another strong message to the Iranians that they have to abide by the Russian-US ceasefire in southern Syria
The latest attack has to be seen in this context. It was more about settling scores between Iran and Israel than it was about Syria. Tel Aviv has been vocally upset with the growing Iranian presence in southern Syria, saying that unless the Russians intervene to end it, they will have take matters into their own hands.
During their meeting in Hamburg last July, Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin agreed to a “de-conflict zone” in the Syrian south, free from any non-Syrian military presence (i.e foreign fighters from the Islamic State, Iranians from the Revolutionary Guards, or Lebanese from Hezbollah).
This was re-emphasized during the Trump-Putin meeting in Vietnam in November. Since then, Russia has established 12 monitoring stations in the south, manned by 400 Russian military police. They are deployed from the Syrian-Jordanian border all the way to Suwaida in the Druze Mountain.
On 29 January 2018, Netanyahu visited Moscow for talks with President Putin, complaining that the “de-conflict zone” was not going as planned. He pointed to Hizbullah troops all over the region, adding that four Iranian military factories had been built in the Syrian south.
Iran argued that the “de-conflict zone” agreement expired in November. Then, on December 1-2, the IDF struck at al-Kisweh; and a few days later, on December 4-5, it carried out another operation, this time on Jemraya, 5km northwest of Damascus.
February 10 was the first time the Syrian Army has responded, downing a sophisticated US-built Israeli warplane. Why now? And where does this drag the entire region? The Syrian attack undoubtedly sets new rules of engagement on the border area, forcing all sides to think twice and act differently from hereon in. It shows the Israelis that such aerial incursions will no longer be tolerated, but it also sends another strong message to the Iranians that they have to abide by the Russian-US ceasefire in southern Syria.
Whether Tehran and Tel Aviv have digested the messages remains to be
seen: all eyes will be trained on the border area in the weeks and months ahead. But both will be well aware that none of the major stakeholders want to see another front of war opening in the Middle East — certainly not the Kremlin or the Trump White House.