Search form

Last updated: 7 min 3 sec ago

You are here

Avoiding a cliffhanger showdown in Syria

Syria has become a congested arena for many state and non-state combatants, each with its own agenda. So much so that a precarious incident such as last Saturday’s — when Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli F-16 fighter jet over northern Galilee — appeared inevitable. Israel retaliated by launching what it described as its biggest air strikes operation on Syria in 30 years. The military said its jets had targeted Syrian and Iranian positions, while Tehran denied Israeli reports that the clash was triggered by an Iranian-made drone that had violated Israeli airspace earlier that day. 
For a few hours it appeared that a major showdown was about to take place. But Russia, the major powerbroker in Syria, called for restraint and urged all parties to respect the country’s sovereignty. The US, Israel’s closest ally, took its time to react and, when it did, only said it had played no part in Saturday’s events, while supporting Israel’s right to defend itself. 
The incident has raised more questions than answers. Since 2014, Israel has repeatedly struck government and Hezbollah positions in Syria, but this was the first time the Syrian air defense system responded and succeeded in hitting a target. The downing of the F-16 has rattled Israel, which, while remaining defiant, appeared to be taking stock of this latest qualitative development. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel will not allow Iran to establish military bases or missile manufacturing sites in Syria. For Israel, Iran’s proximity to the occupied Golan Heights and its presence, along with its Hezbollah proxy, in southern Syria will not be tolerated no matter the cost.

With the political efforts aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the predicament in disarray, the US and Russia must collaborate to defuse a handful of flashpoints that could easily lead to a massive regional war.

Osama Al Sharif

But how could an aging Soviet-made SA-5 missile knock out one of the most sophisticated fighter jets in operation? And could the launch of the missile, or missiles, have taken place without the prior knowledge of the Russians, who practically control Syria’s air defense system? Could the downing of the Israeli jet be in response to the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 over rebel-held Idlib province a week earlier? In that instance, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham claimed it fired a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile at the Russian fighter, raising questions about how the group acquired such an advanced weapon.
The same day the Israeli jet was shot down, Turkey lost at least one helicopter over Afrin, blaming US-backed Syrian Kurds. And, last week, Russia and the Damascus regime condemned US coalition air strikes against militias loyal to the government, which may have included Russian and Iranian advisors, near Deir Ezzor. At least 100 fighters lost their lives.
Iran’s growing threat to Israel in southern Syria notwithstanding, Saturday’s incident may have been Russia’s way of sending a stern message to Washington. The US military presence in northeastern Syria, allegedly to fight Daesh, is being seen by Moscow as an attempt by Washington to squander Russian gains and cripple Turkey’s operation in Afrin.
So the question now is what happens next? Israel has never supported the trilateral agreement to enforce a de-escalation zone in southern Syria as that fails to contain Iran’s presence in the area. Moreover, Israel now claims that Iran is establishing an airbase near Palmyra in the Syrian Badia and could be setting up a missile factory there, meaning its motives for future strikes remain valid.
While Syria, Iran and Hezbollah celebrated the downing of the Israeli F-16, describing it as the “start of a new strategic phase,” Israel is insisting that the rules of engagement, which include launching pre-emptive strikes, have not changed. The next showdown will be crucial, and it is now a matter of when rather than if. Iran is unlikely to roll back its plans in Syria, which it sees as an advance base in confronting the Israeli enemy, and in return Israeli restraint will be in short supply. Russia will have a tough time constraining the Iranians in Syria.
That will put Russia and the US on a possible collision course if a more serious clash flares up between Damascus, backed by its Iranian ally, and Israel. The two sides are edging closer to a cliffhanger face-off. With the political process to finding a solution to Syria’s predicament in disarray, the US and Russia must collaborate to defuse a handful of flashpoints that could easily lead to a massive regional war.
For Russia, this means a revision of the recently failed meeting at Sochi. For the US, it involves reining in Israel, whose next move in Syria could inadvertently drag the region into a new conflict. Moreover, the US, whose strategy in Syria remains vague, must define its priorities. The only way to contain Iran and its proxies is to work with Russia and Syria’s neighbors toward finding a political solution. Carving up the country and creating zones of influence for major players will ultimately lead to new clashes.
- Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010