Downing of Syrian jet raises Israel border tensions

UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned of “a disturbing trajectory of increasingly frequent and dangerous confrontations.” 
Tuesday 24/07/2018
UN peacekeepers look out towards Syria from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on July 22, 2018. (AFP)
UN peacekeepers look out towards Syria from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on July 22, 2018. (AFP)

The United Nations warned of escalating tensions after Israeli missiles shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had allegedly penetrated Israeli airspace on Tuesday.

Responding to the incident, United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned the UN Security Council about “a disturbing trajectory of increasingly frequent and dangerous confrontations.” 

According to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), the Syrian Sukhoi fighter jet had entered around 2 kilometres into Israeli airspace when it was downed by two patriot missiles. Denying IDF reports, Syrian state media claimed the jet was shot down over Syrian territory while flying sorties against the Islamic State.

Syrian army forces have been drawing in on the Israeli border, finally advancing to the border fence and reclaiming territory lost to rebels seven years ago.

Israel’s frontier forces have been on “elevated alert” as the Syrian army edges closer to the Golan, Military Spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said. Israel has warned Syria through various channels not to violate the 1974 agreement that established the demilitarised zone currently patrolled by the United Nations, he added.

Minutes before the downing of the jet, Syrian state media channel Al-Ikhbariya TV was broadcasting footage from the border fence demarcating the UN buffer zone between Syrian and Israeli forces in the Golan Heights. Within the footage, a UN observer post was visible, as was an Israeli defence post around 400 meters away.

According to Israeli military, the Syrian jet took off from the T4 air base, which Israel is believed to have attacked earlier this year.

The plane was then reported to have flown toward Israel at a “relatively high speed” before breaching the country’s airspace, said Conricus. He said it was unknown if the plane deliberately crossed into Israel.

The plane crashed in the southern part of the Syrian Golan Heights, he said. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said one pilot was killed and that the condition of another was unknown. Hours after the crash, Syrian security services had reportedly launched a rescue mission.

Syrian rebels surrendered their last pockets in the south-western provinces of Quneitra and Daraa last week, leading thousands of opposition fighters, their families and other civilians to evacuate to the rebel-held province of Idlib in northern Syria.

According to the Observatory, some 9,500 people have been bused from south-west Syria to Idlib. It is unlikely they will be able to return to their homes in the near-term. The UN has condemned such arrangements as forced displacement, a war crime.

Government forces are now concentrating their fire on one remaining enclave not yet in their hands — a sliver of land along the Golan Heights frontier that is held by the militants linked to the Islamic State group.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)