Fighter jets cloud the skies over the Golan Heights

More than forty years ago in the autumn of 1973, Israeli Air Force fighter jets shot down 13 Syrian MIG-21s in a dogfight. The clash occurred over the Syrian port of Tartous, nearly 200 kilometres deep into Syria, resulting also in the Israelis losing one of their Mirage jets. The Israeli aircraft were on a reconnaissance mission, as Israel grew suspicious of a bigger than usual concentration of Syrian troops on the other side of the Golan Heights. The absence of retaliation by Syria for the heavy loss raised a few eyebrows in the Israeli military establishment, though without any definitive conclusion. The reason for the lack of Syrian response came few weeks later. On October 6, Syria and Egypt launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israel. This attack was an effort to break the political stalemate at the time and regain the Golan Heights which Israel had occupied six years earlier. For nearly four decades following that war, the Israeli-Syrian border was one of the calmest of Israel’s shared borders. This is no longer the case, and though there are only sporadic incidents across the border, the mood is increasingly tense. The shooting down by an Israeli Patriot missile battery of a Syrian Sukhoi 24, which was said to be on a mission to bomb anti-government groups on Syrian border last Tuesday, obviously adds to these growing tensions. The Syrian fully armed fighter jet, that infiltrated Israeli controlled airspace over the Golan Heights, most likely strayed from its intended flight path. The Israeli decision to shoot down the Syrian aircraft demonstrates the zero-tolerance approach the decision makers in Jerusalem are taking to any cross border firing or infiltration. It is also a good indication of the nervousness of Israeli strategists in regarding developments inside Syria and their unpredictability.

Israeli military strategy regarding Syria is limited in its scope, aims and is more nuanced than usual

Yossi Mekelberg

Syrian state TV was quick to condemn Israel for what they regard as military aggression and linked it to U.S. attacks on ISIS in Syria. Syria went as far as to tell Israel that its behavior strengthens ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Not surprisingly, however, there seems to be no attempt by the Syrian military to retaliate for Israeli action. Moreover, the Assad regime cannot genuinely believe that Israel has any interest in supporting radical Islamic movements. Unlike 1973, the lack of Syrian response derives not from any canny plan, but this time the Syrian regime is in the middle of a fight for its own life. For the better part of the Syrian civil war, Israel has done her best to stay out of the hostilities in Syria. It is the result of acceptance among the Israeli decision makers, that it has very limited options to affect events in Syria in a way that serves Israeli interests. Not to mention that none of the sides in the civil war would like to be openly associated with Israeli. Any Israeli intervention that would benefit one or another of the fighting factions in Syria would only compromise the credibility of the party who benefits from it.

Israeli military strategy

Uncharacteristically, therefore, Israeli military strategy regarding Syria is limited in its scope, aims and is more nuanced than usual. It concentrates on preventing the civil war in Syria from spilling over, deliberately or inadvertently into Israel, and blocking the transfer of more advanced military hardware and ammunition to the Hezbollah. For three and half years this approach was rather successful, to a large extent because it represented a clarity of aims and a limited means to achieve them. The limited Israeli military involvement enabled the Syrian regime not to retaliate and escalate the situation, even when its sovereignty was violated by Israeli air attacks. Yet, Israel is walking a very fine line between what is represented by Defense Minister Israel Moshe Yaalon’s response to the downing of the Syrian jet last week and the need to not push the Syrian military establishment into a corner. He asserted that Israel will respond “forcefully” to attempts to threaten its security, claiming that any violation of Israeli sovereignty, regardless if it is a state or non- state actor, or whether intentional or not, will not be allowed by Israel. As such this is neither new nor surprising, nevertheless, in the heat of the event this declaration leaves Israel very little room to manoeuvre and exercise restraint where required rather than instantly pulling a trigger.

What seemed to many at the beginning of Syria’s civil as a swift change, might take years to resolve, and Israel realistically at best can possibly limit or contain the damage to itself. Moreover, the emergence of ISIS as a force to reckon with and its extreme brutality ended the reluctance among the international community to military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The British Parliament that only 13 months ago rejected UK military involvement in Syria has now approved military action against ISIS in Iraq with a huge majority (524-43). They did so despite the Prime Minister David Cameron’s explicit admission that this might lead to military involvement in Syria as well. Especially now that an international alliance has been formed against ISIS which includes Western and Arab countries, any apparent Israeli involvement could potentially destabilise the concerted efforts to contain ISIS and similar organisations. Yet, large parts of Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, were devoted to his view of the dangers presented by militant Islam throughout the region.

Relative passivity, rather than proactivity is an unfamiliar territory for Israeli military thinking. The accumulative impact of events such as firing across the border, taking U.N. peace keepers hostage and the infiltration of a fighter plane, is an increasing cause of concern for Israel. This is especially the case when there is no adequate response and concern that the lack of response might encourage certain groups in Syria, even the regime, to tempt Israel to enter the fray.

From the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the prevailing view in Israel was that it was better off with the Assad regime in power. With little hope that more enlightened forces will take over in Damascus, it seems that, at least in the short run, Israel is left with very limited options. Securing the border along the Golan Height from hostile elements is of particular concern. This can be achieved through a combination of deterrence and proactive diplomacy. Failing to do so might see Israel increasingly engaged militarily in Syria with an alarming and unforeseeable outcome.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
 

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