Allegations of a mysterious cross-border air raid have ratcheted up Israeli-Syrian tensions and stirred fears that a new war may be on the horizon.
Damascus accused Israel on Thursday of dispatching warplanes on a bombing run in its territory and threatened unspecified retaliation. The Israel Defense Forces refused to comment.
Syrian state media said Israeli jets penetrated Syrian airspace near the northern city of Rakka, dropped ordnance and were chased out by anti-aircraft fire. There were no reports of casualties or damage.
The apparent exchange of fire sent shockwaves through a region that has witnessed both belligerent rhetoric between Jerusalem and Damascus since last year’s war between Israel and Lebanon as well as occasional peace overtures from Syria that Israel has dismissed as disingenuous.
Syrian officials, while not giving details on how they were certain of the provenance of the warplanes apparently spotted near Syria’s border with Turkey, were quick to cry foul.
“This demonstrates that Israel cannot foreswear aggression and treachery,” Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal told Al-Jazeera.
After hours of prevarication, Israel’s military spokesman issued a terse statement indicating there would be no confirmation or denial of the Syrian claims. “It is not our custom to respond to these kinds of reports,” the statement said.
The Defense Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office issued a news blackout.
Alon Ben-David, Israel analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly, a United Kingdom-based defense magazine, suggested that Thursday’s incident might have occurred when a routine Israeli surveillance flight over Syria encountered an unexpected sophisticated radar system.
Syrian President “Bashar Assad has given his armed forces an order to stop being silent about Israeli incursions,” Ben-David said. “Syria is also trying to expand, and test, its anti-aircraft facilities.”
Another theory is that Israeli planes, taking part in exercises in Syria’s neighbor Turkey, had strayed over the border and been forced to jettison fuel tanks while making their escape. But Ankara officials said that the last joint Israeli-Turkish drill took place last month and was long over.
The government’s reticence to comment on Thursday’s incident was unusual. When the Israeli air force last flew over Syria — buzzing Assad’s palace in 2006 after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped during a Palestinian raid from Gaza and just before the outbreak of the Israel-Hezbollah war — the action was first reported in Israel and then confirmed by Damascus.
Syria was similarly reluctant to comment when Israeli jets bombed a Palestinian terrorist training camp outside its capital in 2003.
“What’s different here is that Syria is initiating the report,” said Shmuel Gordon, a retired Israeli air force colonel. Speaking on Israel’s Channel 2 television, Gordon said it was unusual that Syria would be so quick to advertise its failure to shoot down enemy planes in its airspace.
“I’d say the motive here is diplomatic, rather than tactical,” Gordon said.
Syria, which wants the Golan Heights returned under any future peace deal with Israel, has hinted it might resort to military force if it deems diplomacy a dead end.
According to Israeli sources, Syria has been building up its armed forces mainly with Russian help, though most of the new deployments appear to be defensive. Over the summer, both Israel and Syria conducted significant military exercises near the disputed border between the two countries.
On Thursday, President Shimon Peres reiterated Israel’s insistence that Syria cease its support for Israel’s terrorist enemies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
“Israel would like to have peace with Syria, undoubtedly. But we cannot hang just on the declarations of Syria, we have to watch her deeds,” Peres said.
“The Syrians are supplying arms and money to Hezbollah. Why are they doing it?” Peres declared. “The Syrians are hosting the headquarters of Hamas in Damascus. They cannot suggest peace and at the same time enable the Hamas headquarters to bomb Israel.”
The United States, which has echoed many of Israel’s misgivings about an Assad regime that openly backs Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists and is alleged to be fueling the Iraqi insurgency, assumed a skeptical distance from the Syrian-reported sortie.
“I don’t want to comment on what at this point in time is speculation,” State Department Spokesman Tom Casey said. “I’m not going to speculate on stories that as far as I know don’t have any basis in fact.”