By Ely Karmon
In the latest incident on the Israeli-Syrian border, on March 16, Israel Air Force fighter jets struck in Syria shipments of weapons intended to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon, the third such attack since the beginning of the year.
In response, the Assad regime’s air defense fired a number of missiles toward the Israeli jets, without hitting any of them, in spite of Syrian claims. One of the missiles fired by the Syrian army was intercepted by Israel’s “Arrow” missile defense system, in the first confirmed instance of successful operational use of the system.
This was the most serious incident between the two countries since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war six years ago. Actually, the name of the game is not the prevention of Hezbollah’s acquiring “tie-breaking” weapons, but the entire strategic environment in Syria and Lebanon, which seriously threatens Israel’s security.
This grave incident occurs against the backdrop of important changes in the Syrian civil war and in the region.
These days Syrian President Bashar Assad feels stronger domestically and internationally after his army, with Russian air cover and Iranian and Hezbollah troops’ support, has reoccupied Aleppo, the stronghold of the rebel opposition forces for the past three years, and expelled many of the rebels acting in the eastern districts of the capital Damascus and their last bastion in Homs.
The regime has also decided to reconquer the important southern city of Deraa, where rebels continue to control two-thirds of the province, and return to the Israeli border in the Golan Heights. In February and March, Russian heavy air-strikes on Syrian opposition positions in Deraa continued for several days, after a long period during which Russian bombers abstained from Syria’s south.
The other important change is the critical role of Russia in achieving a political solution to the conflict according to its regional interests.
Therefore, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 9 to secure Israeli strategic interests before the conclusion of a regional deal. Commenting on Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow and meeting with President Putin, Russian geopolitical analyst Gevorg Mirzayan described the strategic aim of Netanyahu’s trip: to gain Russia’s support in its fight against Iran and preventing Tehran getting control of post-war Syria, a “relatively modest” goal, he claims. Mirzayan also suggests that the two leaders might have been discussing the so-called “security zone” around the Golan Heights.
Mirzayan suggests Tel Aviv wants to secure Moscow’s neutrality “in case the solution of this crisis transfers from political to military means.”
What is even more interesting, Mirzayan claims, is that this request partially correlates with Russia’s goals, which include reaching a balance of powers in the Middle East “while understanding that after the end of the war in Syria, Iran will regard Moscow as more of a competitor.”
Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz rightly remarked that Assad’s attempt to shoot down Israeli planes “could be a sign of frustration” as Putin is discussing his country’s future with other world leaders, including Netanyahu.
Assad has accused Israel in the past for “supporting the terrorists, logistically or through directs raids on our army in the neighboring area.” The Syrian army swore to retaliate “directly, with all means at its disposal” to the latest attack. It is unclear whether it has the means to make good on this threat.
Significantly, days before Netanyahu met Putin, Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary group with operational links to Hezbollah and Iran, announced the formation of its “Golan Liberation Brigade,” another signal that Iran and its allies are increasingly focused on confronting the opposition in the south, as the first stage of a two-stage effort to expand the “line of confrontation” with Israel east from Shebaa to the Yarmouk River. “If the Syrian government requests, we are ready to take actions to liberate Golan,” Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted a spokesman as saying.
(Israeli soldiers ride armoured vehicles during an exercise in Golan Heights)
The Israeli media reported that the IAF will examine whether there was full operational justification for the exceptional interception by an Arrow missile that Israel has officially reported. Former prime minister Ehud Barak even stated that “it could be that with more thorough thought, it wasn’t worth firing.”
But the latest Israeli high-level statements show that the Israeli political and military leaders have arrived at the conclusion that time has arrived to intervene more assertively and aggressively in Syria in defense of Israel’s basic strategic needs, and the use of the Arrow missile was probably a message to Iran rather than to Assad.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman declared that if Syria’s fired anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli planes, Israel would destroy its air defense system. Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said that Israel is focused on preventing Hezbollah from receiving shipments of advanced weapons but stressed the fact that the army is “monitoring changes in the Lebanon and Syrian sectors.”
Interestingly, the Trump administration has been completely silent about the serious developments on the Israeli-Syrian border, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is busy in Asia and the diplomatic agency grapples with a lack of top officials.
Israel should reach out to the US to get it involved alongside Israel in a situation which closely concerns President Donald Trump’s assumed interest in achieving a regional understanding with Russia and at the same time curtailing Iranian ambitions in Syria and beyond.
The author is a political scientist and Senior Research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).