If the last four years of periodic Israeli air strikes within Syria are any indication, the Syrian military is highly unlikely to retaliate against Israel following today’s cross-border skirmish. During morning hours local time, the Israeli Air Force shot down a Syrian fighter jet that strayed into Israeli territory unintentionally. Following the incursion, the Syrian regime quickly confirmed the event, alleging, according to Ynet, that it was “proof of "Israel's support of the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front."
Despite the Syrian regime’s confirmation of the incident and baseless, outlandish claims of an IS-Israel-Jabhat al-Nusra-alignment, the attack is likely to go quietly ignored.
Only hours earlier, for the first time since the raging Syrian conflict began in 2011, United States forces - in coalition with at least five other Arab states -- intervened militarily in Syria. The US, in coordination with Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, targeted IS positions in Al Hasakah, Abu Kama, Dayr az Zawr and Raqqah and used “a mix of fighter, bomber, remotely piloted aircraft and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” according to a statement by the Department of Defense (DoD).
In an interview with Al Arabiya News, Daniel Nisman, president of the Levantine Group - a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Tel Aviv, noted that the coalition strikes are indeed a major game changer for the Bashar al-Assad regime but likely, he said, “not in the way you would think.” Nisman noted that ISIS “has been the Assad regime's ticket back to legitimacy” and weakening the group significantly would inevitably throw the disgraced Syrian regime back into the world’s focus – a decidedly unwanted development for Assad.
Moreover, while US officials claimed to the New York Times that Assad was given no prior notice of the assault on Syrian territory, Damascus’ foreign ministry has reportedly claimed otherwise, noting they were indeed informed before the attacks began. The conflicting reports are unsurprising and likely an obvious attempt to save face by the regime; only one week prior, President Obama warned if the Syrian military attacked US forces, the US president would quickly work to “wipe out” regime air defenses, jeopardizing Assad’s tenuous rule. Nisman also said that the Syrian regime claim of prior notification could also be an attempt by the Syrian military to stave off pressure to retaliate against states that have now publicly taken responsibility for carrying out military operations within Syria – undermining the nation’s sovereignty.
Meanwhile, US officials explicitly indicating they did not inform the Syrian regime of attack plans beforehand underscores the already stated US commitment to defeating ISIS without entering into any alliance with Assad.
“The US is bypassing him to degrade ISIS, denying him of that legitimacy, and also threatening to cast him back into the spotlight as the regional bad guy once IS is degraded. In addition, the taboo of attacking Syria has now officially been broken, and the Assad regime is surely weary that it could be easier for the coalition to turn its sights against the regime for its atrocities in the future,” Nisman said.
While Assad continues demonstrating his serious reluctance to retaliating for both attacks threatening Syria’s sovereignty – like the coalition strikes targeting ISIS - as well as those that directly target his military – like the IAF downing of a Syrian military jet – it cannot be ruled out Assad would also be deterred from comprehensively retaliating if coalition forces targeted his own air defenses directly.
With that said it is especially notable that coalition strikes also reportedly targeted Jabhat al-Nusra cadres in Idlib province, a development that could indicate that while international forces seek to weaken ISIS and al-Nusra, there is a window of opportunity for moderate rebels to be supported and promoted. Nisman said this could be true but that “the real test would be to see active and real-time coordination with the rebels during combat, as we see with the Iraqi government forces and Peshmerga in Iraq.”
The Syrian opposition welcomed the strikes with President Hadi al-Bahra stating, “Tonight, the international community has joined our fight against ISIS in Syria.” Bahra’s statement is likely indicative of hope that the military cooperation between Arab states and the US in Syria will now be extended to collaboration that sees more direct aiding and arming of moderate rebels – a pivotal development that may be the only way to sustain progress made against ISIS. With the US likely to remain committed to keeping boots off the ground and Arab states unlikely to deploy ground forces, Syrian rebels may be the only party willing to maintain the offensive against ISIS; the question remains as to whether they will be now be equipped to adequately do so.