New Reality In Syria Forcing Reckoning


Tel Aviv — The image of the crash site of the downed Israeli fighter jet was stark: a field of black char and plane debris seared into the verdant grass on a winter Saturday.

The F-16 had been hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire while returning from a daring cross-border reprisal raid after Israel shot down what it said was an Iranian drone over northern Israel. Not since the first Lebanon war in 1982 had an Israeli jet been shot down by the Syrians.

For a few hours, Israel seemed to be teetering on the brink of a major escalation along its northern borders. And even though the exchange did not trigger an immediate round of fighting, many in Israel are asking whether it’s only a matter of time before a major war breaks out between Israel and the so-called “Shiite axis” of Iran, Hezbollah and Syria.

Such a conflict is expected to be unlike anything Israelis have known before, with sophisticated rockets – an estimated 100,000 in all — in Lebanon aimed at central Tel Aviv, and Israeli officials vowing a merciless retaliation against Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure.

The exchange on Saturday marked the first-ever open clash between Israel and Iranian forces after years of a shadow war between the two regional enemies. Iran has never sent one of its drones into Israel, and Israel has never openly struck Iranian-staffed military installations. The shift in the tide of the Syrian civil war in favor of the Assad regime has emboldened both Iran and Syria to take more provocative steps against Israel, analysts said.

Amos Yadlin, a retired general who headed Israeli army intelligence, said that chances for war are now “much higher” than they’ve been over the last decade, when the prospects for a confrontation was close to zero.

“This is the most powerful event since the second Lebanon war,” said Yadlin in a conference call with reporters.

“There is a determination of Iran to build a military presence in Syria, and there’s a determination of Israel not to let it happen. And the two vectors are colliding. The question is, can we exercise escalation-control efforts?”

Syrian government officials insisted that the outcome of the clash signaled a rewriting of the so-called “rules of the game.” After flying dozens, potentially hundreds of sorties in Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets, Israel would now have to take into an account a “strategic” decision of Syria and its allies to respond to Israel’s offensives.

The day after the clash, cabinet ministers and government politicians declared that Israel emerged from the confrontation with the upper hand. Israeli intelligence had identified an Iranian drone, shot it down and then its air force swiftly exacted a price by hitting Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria.

“There is a determination of Iran to build a military presence in Syria, and there’s a determination of Israel not to let it happen. And the two vectors are colliding. The question is, can we exercise escalation-control efforts?”

“Once there is a provocation, we need to exact a price tag that’s three times as heavy,” said Likud parliament member Tzachi Hanegbi in an interview with Israel Army Radio. On the other hand, Hanegbi downplayed the significance of the downing of the Israeli F-16, saying that the air force merely lost a “hunk of metal.”

Israel’s national infrastructure minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel Radio that Iran crossed a “tactical red line” by sending a drone into Israeli airspace. He insisted that the downing of the jet was of little significance. “Israel’s air superiority [in the skies of Syria] hasn’t been damaged. … There’s no such thing as 100 percent” perfection.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman vowed retaliation against any new attacks from Iran or Syria. “It’s not the time to bark, but to bite, and we will bite hard,” Lieberman said.

Despite the reassurances, for many Israelis, the downing of an air force jet for the first time in more than three decades remained the image seared into national consciousness. In the days following the attack, Israel’s media speculated about what had brought down the plane. Had Syria’s air defenses been upgraded with more advanced systems, perhaps by the Russians? Was the flight crew too focused on the reprisal target and missed warning signs of the anti-aircraft missile?

To be sure, Israelis were breathing a sigh of relief that both pilot and navigator survived the incident — and that their plane didn’t go down over Syria. A surviving crew member told Israeli reporters that the decision to ditch the plane had been made seconds after they realized that shrapnel from an anti-aircraft missile explosion had fatally damaged the F-16.

“It’s not the time to bark, but to bite, and we will bite hard.”

“On the ground we won big time; we attacked all of these command sites,” said Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University. “It’s an impressive operational achievement, but the dominant pictures of the plane being shot down is a psychological blow,” he acknowledged. “Psychologically, no matter what the government says, it’s a reminder that Israel can’t simply rely on force. We became so powerful, attacking hundreds of times [without casualties], we forgot that there are limits.”

The one-day escalation also highlighted how Russia has partially displaced the U.S. as a powerbroker in the Syrian conflict. Even though the U.S. released a statement supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir Putin to convey Israel’s warnings to Iran and Syria.

The daily Haaretz newspaper reported that Israeli defense chiefs were considering more attacks, but those plans were apparently shelved after Putin pressured Netanyahu to avoid dangerous actions.

“The quiet after the Netanyahu-Putin call once again shows who’s the real boss in the Middle East,” wrote Amos Harel in Haaretz. “While the U.S. remains the region’s present absentee … Russia is dictating the way things are going.”

Writing in the same paper, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro argued that if the latest clash doesn’t prompt U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to include Jerusalem on the itinerary of his current Middle East visit, it would amount to diplomatic “malpractice” and signal that Israel is “on its own” against Iran and Syria.

Moscow, noted Ofer Zalzberg, a senior Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group, is the one actor that has relationships with Israel, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and can mediate between the parties. Just two days before the attack, Zalzberg co-authored a report warning that Israel and Iran’s allies seemed to be on a “collision course” and that a larger war could be “one miscalculation away.”

Indeed, many of Israel’s Middle East wars have erupted as a result of miscalculation, even though neither side desired it (see Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, and the 2014 war with Hamas).

Though the Russian presence in Syria limits Israel’s freedom of action to launch strikes in the country, Moscow’s influence can also temper Iran’s actions. Putin’s ultimate goal, analysts say, is to keep Bashar Assad in power and help him to rebuild Syria. A war between Israel and Iran could embroil Syria and cause major harm, even endanger Assad’s rule. The Crisis Group report encourages Russia to reach a series of “modus vivendi” understandings between the sides to avert new incidents that could escalate into a war.

“The more we get into a stage of the Syrian civil war in which the identity of the victor is known, and Assad has the upper hand, the more we will see the Israel-Iranian conflict surfacing,” he said. “If this develops into a full-fledged war, the costs will be high for everyone. No one wants a war.”