As the dust begins to settle after a weekend in which Israel “defended” itself over another country’s sovereign territory, a region in dangerous flux is just that little bit more unstable.
Predictably, everyone claimed victory as yet another wave of airstrikes hit Syria. In reality, Israel – yet again – demonstrated its superior firepower, but has been given food for thought by the downing of one of its fighter planes, by Syrian government or Syrian government-allied forces. The Israeli air force will understand that the unchallenged impunity with which it has struck targets in Syria – acknowledged or not – for many years no longer quite holds.
The weekend also suggests Russia is now an essential arbiter in the region where nobody considers Syria’s borders anything other than lines on a map, and preparations for a war on Iran progress.
Here are a few observations from the weekend.
Up is down
It apparently doesn’t matter what Israel does, it’s always self-defense.
In Israel’s telling, the sequence of events began early Saturday, when Israeli forces spotted an Iranian drone entering Israeli airspace. The drone was shot down and eight jets dispatched to wreak revenge, one of which, a US-supplied F-16, was shot down on its way back.
Israeli forces then launched a second wave of attacks. According to reports, those strikes destroyed half of Syria’s air defenses.
Israel has blamed Iran for sending the drone over Israeli airspace and downing its jet. The Iranian foreign ministry called the accusation “ridiculous,” and the alliance fighting on behalf of the Syrian government called it a “lie,” saying it had dispatched the drone to fight Islamic State in eastern Syria and that it never entered Israeli air space.
Nevertheless, Israel immediately received support from the White House for its “right to defend itself.”
Whatever the case, to suggest that the drone, whatever its providence, wherever its final demise, was the spark to conflagration is to ignore the 100 bombings or so Israel has acknowledged carrying out in Syria since 2011, or those that go back long before Syria’s own conflict began.
It is to ignore that Israel has been in illegal military occupation of Syrian territory since 1967, land seized in a war Israel started.
Attack may well be the best form of defense, but it is still an attack. To think otherwise is to believe that war is peace.
Russia matters more
In contrast to Washington’s uncritical support for Israel’s form of “self-defense” that would have had no purchase on the other side, Russia was the player to step in, so far successfully, to end the conflagration and insist on respect for Syria’s territorial integrity.
With Russia’s military deeply enmeshed in Syria, it is in neither Israel’s nor Russia’s interest to clash and both are very aware of the danger of miscalculation. It is, however, in Moscow’s interests not to see its years of costly and deadly efforts on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and his government and allies, be laid to waste by an overzealous Israeli military posture.
If the downing of a jet will cause Israel to exercise more restraint, Russia will welcome it and the Syrian government will claim it as a victory. That in turn should allow Moscow to dampen any enthusiasm in Syria for more.
Israel has made the point that it has superior firepower. It will be wary that such firepower should directly harm Russian elements on the ground, potentially provoking, for once, a military equal with firepower superior to its own.
Come fight, one and all
Syria is a free-for-all battlefield. Anyone with a weapon appears to be invited to a horrific conflict that has seen Syrians bombed by nearly a dozen different countries – the US military alliance in the east of the country includes Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, France has bombed targets in the country, Russia’s air force is in constant action, Turkey has invaded the north, while Israel bombs at will – as well as their own government.
The UN has yet again proven powerless even as the humanitarian situation only gets worse.
International law is entirely absent. Regional order – knocked off balance by the 2003 invasion of Iraq – is being reshaped here (as well as in Yemen) in a series of proxy engagements and mini-conflicts that, aside from Syrians fighting Syrians, take in almost all the region’s players: Turks fight Kurds, Israel bombs Hizballah targets and Arab Gulf proxies take on Iranian-backed forces.
It’s a mess and one that is far from over. And, with an overarching regional narrative of Sunni versus Shia, one very much encouraged by Israel, promoted in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE and with plenty of purchase in Washington, this all seems preparation for more war.
It may get a whole lot worse.