The risk of opening up new fronts in Syria
On Saturday last week, the Syrian air defence shot down an Israeli jet fighter when it was on its way back from a bombing mission in Syria. A Syrian anti-aircraft missile hit the Israeli plane and it fell in Israeli territory. The importance of the incident is that this is the first time since 1982 that the Syrian air defence was able to hit an Israeli military aircraft. No doubt, it was a major achievement, because the Israeli air force was regarded as immune to such attacks.
Israel carried out this bombing mission as a punitive response to the penetration of a drone into Israeli air space. The drone was shot down immediately. An unnamed commander in the Syrian army told Eliah J. Magnier, the war and political correspondent of Al-Rai newspaper, that the drone was sent to Israel to deliberately provoke an Israeli reaction and that the Syrian air defence was waiting for the Israeli jet fighter to enter the Syrian air space. So, it was eventually shot down.
Both the entry of an Iran-manufactured drone into Israeli air space and the downing of an Israeli jet fighter are important milestones in the improvement of the military capability of Israel’s enemies, which is gradually changing to the detriment of Israel. However the incident is nowhere close to upsetting the overall power balance in favour of Syria or Iran. It shows the efficiency of the Iranian defence industry. Iran is also developing high-precision missiles, which is a nightmare for Israel.
In response to the downing of the Israeli jet fighter, Israel attacked and destroyed many Syrian air defence command and control facilities. The main target were Iranian facilities in Syria. Syria was also targeted to send a message not to allow Iran to build such facilities on its territory.
The question remains now whether tensions could escalate and transform from a proxy war to a direct confrontation between the main actors such as Iran, Israel, the United States and Russia.
No outcome should be dismissed in such a complex atmosphere, but none of the major actors is likely to take a deliberate risk of escalating tension.
The likelihood of a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia is close to none, because in the Syrian crisis there is no direct threat to their vital interests. The super powers have bigger stakes worldwide. They would not act in light of their respective positions in Syria alone. Furthermore, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Russia policy has not yet taken on its final shape.
A further escalation between Syria and Israel is not likely either, because Syria is only a territorial host country in the clashes between Iran and Israel. Israel is aware that, first, Syria is more resilient to absorb losses. It has lost hundreds of thousands of its citizens. It has lost several high-ranking generals. It has lost military aircraft and armaments. Some of its garrisons remained for months under the siege by Islamic State or other opposition groups. Its military installations were damaged. But it has still survived.
Secondly, the Syrian regime has now become battle-hardened. It is gaining terrain and self-confidence in its fight against the relatively softer targets of jihadist fighters. Thanks to Russian and Iranian assistance, its fighting capacity has increased.
Thirdly, the bigger threats for Israel are Iran and Hezbollah. Any scenario that does not take these two factors into account will remain incomplete.
Iran and Israel have conflicting interests, but both are aware of the consequences of war. Iran is aware that Israel has a capacity to hit hard. It is also aware that the power balance is still in favour of Israel. On the other hand, Israel is also aware that Iran is an oil rich country with more than 80 million people, possessing nuclear technology and strategic depth. Israel is surrounded by hostile countries. Therefore wisdom requires that war must be avoided.
Despite this positive note, downing of the drone and jet moved the Syrian crisis towards a new phase. The risks of all-out war are not high, but it does not bode well to drag out the crisis by opening new battlefronts.