As the civil war morphs, Putin is trying to position himself as the indispensable power. But a dangerous confrontation between Israel and Iran is escalating.
Israel’s military said Tuesday it fired two Patriot missiles and shot at a Syrian fighter jet that entered Israeli airspace.
The Israel Defense Forces said on their Twitter account that they monitored the Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet, which they said was a mile inside Israeli airspace when it was shot down. Sky News Arabia reported that the Syrian jet crashed into the Yarmouk basin inside Syrian territory, an area that is controlled by the Islamic State. Syrian forces are fighting to oust the group from the territory; Syria disputed Israel’s account, saying the warplane was hit while operating inside Syrian airspace.
It’s not the first time that Israel and Syria have come to blows near their border, but it’s a dramatic illustration of what the Syrian Civil War is morphing into now that Bashar al-Assad has all but declared victory. And it also shows that, however much Russia has tried to position itself as the indispensable power in Syria, it cannot control events there, despite its recent moves to propose a grand bargain to protect Israel’s border.
That much was clear when sirens sounded Tuesday in the Golan Heights, near Israel’s border with Syria, in response to the infiltration of Israeli airspace. Haaretz reported that residents in northern Israel said they saw interceptor missiles being fired from the Safed area, a city in northern Israel that’s near the border with Syria.
“Since this morning, there has been an increase in the internal fighting in Syria and the Syrian Air Force’s activity,” the IDF said. “The IDF is in high alert and will continue to operate against the violation of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement.”
Under that agreement, which was signed by Syria and Israel in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and Arab states including Syria, the two countries agreed to a cease-fire on land, sea, and air, as well as to “refrain from all military actions against each other.” The accord has, for the most part, lasted since that time, albeit with exceptions sparked by the Syrian Civil War raging on Israel’s border. The last time Israel shot down a Syrian jet in its airspace was 2014. Syrian military drones and unmanned aerial vehicles have entered Israel and Israel has struck targets inside Syria since the civil war began in 2011.
Israel’s action comes a day after Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, visited the country with an offer that he said would keep Iranian forces in Syria at least 62 miles from Syria’s border with Israel. But, as Haaretz reported, Israeli officials are concerned that even with a 62-mile buffer zone, Iran can use its long-range missiles against Israeli targets.
“The removal of Iran must include the removal of long-range weapons, halting the production of precision weapons as well as the air defenses that protect the missiles, and the closure of border crossing that permit smuggling of this weaponry to Lebanon and to Syria,” an Israeli official told the newspaper. “Russia has a certain ability to prevent this. They are a significant factor in Syria.”
News reports suggested U.S. President Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, would reveal some sort of “grand bargain” on Syria at their joint news conference last week in Helsinki, an event that garnered attention for far different reasons. Under that reported “grand bargain,” the U.S. would accept Assad's presidency in exchange for a full Iranian withdrawal from Syria. No such plan was announced in Helsinki.
Both Iranian and Russian forces are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s more than seven-year-long civil war. Assad has all but won that conflict, which has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, created a refugee crisis that is upending politics far beyond the region, and destroyed the infrastructure of a country that was until recently a regional power. Many of the rebel groups, which were nominally supported by regional and Western powers, including the U.S., are now in talks with the Assad regime. ISIS, which once controlled a large swath of territory straddling Syria and Iraq, is now reduced to small pockets in Syria.
Israel has watched much of this with increasing alarm. It has stayed away from the fighting unless directly provoked, but has engaged in humanitarian actions, including providing medical care to injured Syrian refugees, and, last week, evacuating members of the White Helmets, the anti-Assad humanitarian group, and others from southern Syria to Jordan, via Israel. As it becomes increasingly clear that Assad, whose political survival was until recently in grave doubt, will remain in power for the foreseeable future, Israeli officials say they fear that his victory will ensure a permanent Iranian and Hezbollah military presence on its border in southern Syria; Hezbollah serves as Iran’s proxy. Israel, which says it views Iran as an existential threat and fought a long conflict with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, is adamantly opposed to any such presence. Israel fears this would be tantamount to turning Syria into another Lebanon, where Iran enjoys influence through Hezbollah and from where it maintains the ability to strike targets inside Israel. Iran, meanwhile, is keen to preserve the rewards of its investment in the Syrian conflict.
Then there is the Trump administration, which has at the same time raised the temperature of its rhetoric against Iran. Trump, in a tweet late Sunday, warned Iran of “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE SUFFERED BEFORE.” He was responding to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s remarks to Iranian diplomats that “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” The U.S. president’s tweet was, as National-Security Adviser John Bolton said, the culmination of conversations between the two men “over the last several days.” Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, said Sunday the U.S. wanted to “one day see Iranians in Iran enjoying the same quality of life that Iranians in America enjoy.”
Trump and Putin announced that they would work together in Syria, but didn’t offer details. Although Russia is, in the words of the unamed Israeli official, “a significant factor in Syria,” it isn’t clear that it can prevent Iranian activity inside Syria. As I wrote in May, the conflict between Iran, whose leaders have repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction, and Israel, is growing. Iran has launched drones from Syrian territory inside Israel (Israel has shot them down), fired rockets against Israeli forces in the Golan Heights (Israel fired back on Iranian targets inside Syria), and transferred weapons to Hezbollah inside Syria (Israel has struck the military base where this is said to occur). Russia might be keen to preserve what is arguably its most significant foreign-policy achievement in recent years—helping keep Assad in power—but the latest events show that Russia, even with its ally on the verge of victory in Syria, can’t control what new forms the war takes.