With Israeli F-16 being shot down by Damascus anti-aircraft defenses, two Turkish helicopters downed by the Kurdish Peshmerga of Afrin, Idlib rebels shooting down a Russian MIG with an air ground missile: it is safe to say that Syrian skies are seriously dangerous for anyone who ventures there.
In any case, these three recent aerial incidents show that the Syrian crisis is mutating into a regional conflict. Similarly to what happened during the Lebanese civil war, everyone – major and regional powers – want to put their two cents, push their pawns and, ultimately, play a role in the final denouement.
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In doing so, the risks of confrontation will increase considerably, because it is no longer an internal crisis but an entanglement of wars with different agenda and dynamics.
The loss of an F-16 is a major turning point for Israel. During the so-called “33 days” war in Lebanon in 2006, the Hebrew state had encountered serious difficulties on the ground, with heavy losses in armored vehicles. One of its ships had even been damaged by a missile fire from Hezbollah.
It is a proxy confrontation between Israel and Iran which happens to be between the Golan Heights and the MediterraneanChristian Chesnot
But, at the time, Israel retained air supremacy. Today, the destruction of F-16 is a warning shot. From now on, Israeli bombers will have to take even greater precaution before venturing into Syrian skies. The absolute control of the sky by the Jewish state is partly called into question.
It is not so much the regime of Bashar Al-Assad that scares the Israeli state but Hezbollah and especially Iran’s striking force. Indeed, Tehran dreams of bringing the front line to the gates of Israel.
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The Hebrew state is waiting for any suspicious convoys or installations that could pose a threat, either in southern Syria or in southern Lebanon. To summarize, it is a proxy confrontation between Israel and Iran which happens to be between the Golan Heights and the Mediterranean.
In this very tight game, it is up to Russia to play the referees. In other words: reassure the Israelis and dissuade the Iranians from provocation. Because in the end, it is the Russians who control the airspace of Syria. However, no one is immune to other incidents in air or in land, even though no one has interest to ignite fire.
Further north, the Syrian crisis has also developed its metastases. It revived the old conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. We suspected that this would happen, but the operation “olive branch” triggered by Recep Tayip Edorgan, is not a long quiet river.
On the contrary, all indications point to the fact that the Turkish army is getting bogged down and missing a decisive victory. The loss of two helicopters in the space of a few days does not bode well for the generals of Ankara. Turkey has opened a front that closing again victoriously will prove to be a difficult task.
As for Russia, the dominant power in Syria, it is probably time for reconsideration. The failure of the Sochi conference, the loss of a Mig, and especially the American presence in the east of the country alongside with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a somewhat Arab-Kurdish militia, show that Moscow still has a lot of work to do to find a way out of the crisis.
But the strength of Russia is that whenever it sets a goal, it does so with patient and tenacity. Russia is now at the center of the game, which also involves responsibilities.
We will see in the coming weeks and months, if Vladimir Putin is able to impose and enforce the “Pax Russia” in Syria to different regional and local actors (Turkey, Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, the Kurds and Al Assad’s regime).
Behind the scenes, red lines will be drawn for each player. This is probably also why, each of the protagonists are showing their muscles to establish a favorable balance of power on the ground. With all the risks of a possible deterioration.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.