Downing of Israeli fighter plane marks transition in Syrian war

Iran seems to be betting on Israel’s reluctance to engage in such a war with potentially large numbers of casualties among its troops.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Hezbollah supporters rally near the Lebanese border with Israel to celebrate the crashing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet, on February 10.  (AFP)
Playing with fire. Hezbollah supporters rally to celebrate the crashing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet, on February 10. (AFP)

The downing by Syrian missiles of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet marked a transition in the Syrian crisis. It has been a long time since an Israeli fighter jet was downed. The last time Israel lost a fighter jet to enemy fire was in 1982.

The Israeli plane was bombing Iranian and Syrian regime installations inside Syria. This means the confrontation between Iran and Israel has taken a new twist. It also means that the Russian side is no longer able to enforce the agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu regarding southern Syria. That agreement stipulated the absence of direct or indirect Iranian presence in the area.

In reality, we do not have the answers to many questions. What we know is that there is a new game in Syria and that past agreements are no longer valid, especially after Turkey’s incursion in Afrin with Russian blessing. Turkey is keen on guaranteeing for itself a seat at the negotiations when the phase of deciding Syria’s fate comes.

We know that the Americans have decided to lay claim to most of Syria’s riches. That’s why any force from the Iranian camp or the various allies of the Syrian regime that dares go near east of the Euphrates gets a taste of US ire. That’s what happened recently to about 100 fighters who tried to approach a gas field in Deir ez-Zor.

Not long ago, we could discern the broad lines of a Russian-American entente concerning Syria. Both superpowers agreed to coordinate their actions in Syria, especially those in the air, to avoid clashes between them.

However, it seems the Russians are realising that their position in Syria is eroding. Their base in Hmeimim was attacked at the end of last year and they discovered that their Iranian ally is pursuing its own agenda in Syria. Iran wants to lay its hands on parts of southern Syria.

With the downing of the Israeli F-16, the cards are going to be reshuffled in Syria. The big question is: Will the Iranian presence in Syria be tolerated?

The United States concedes to Russian interests in Syria, especially along the coast. It also concedes to Turkish interests within certain limitations. The Kurdish question is a bone of contention between Washington and Ankara. We know what Israel wants in Syria. We can consider the occupied Golan Heights as practically annexed by Israel. Israel wants to do away with a unified Syria and particularly wants to prevent Iran from using southern Syria to fire missiles at Israeli targets. About these objectives, Israel sees eye to eye with the United States and Russia and even, somehow, Turkey.

Within this context, Iran’s insistence on backing the Assad regime seems to be out of place. Quite clearly, everybody wants Iran out of Syria. The greatest mystery that remains, however, regards Hezbollah’s plans considering the face-off between Iran and Israel. Will it start a new front with Israel in southern Lebanon and shove Lebanon, a most fragile country, into a disastrous adventure?

We can safely say that the Syrian missile announced the end of the minority regime in Syria. We must also not forget that the Israeli air raid on Syrian targets was in response to an Iranian drone from a Syrian airfield towards Israel. It is clear there is a desire for escalation in the Syrian-Iranian camp with an enemy that thrives on such games.

It is not inconceivable that Iran is pushing for a full-fledged war in the region so the world should know that there will be a heavy price to pay if Iran is pushed out of Syria. Neither Israel nor Russia will be willing to pay that price. Will Israel accept a war on its land with all it entails in terms of human loss?

Iran seems to be betting on Israel’s reluctance to engage in such a war with potentially large numbers of casualties among its troops. It is also betting that Israel, and everybody else for that matter, will accept Iran’s permanent presence in Syria.

The billions of dollars invested in backing up the Assad regime would have after all borne the right fruit, which is protecting the Iranian regime itself. The whole affair seems to be bigger than just downing an Israeli warplane.