IAF jet 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Since the Second Lebanon War, both Israel and Syria have been preparing their militaries for war. The assumption within the defense establishment was that a "miscalculation" - the IDF's word for a misstep, wrong move or accidental misunderstanding along the Golan Heights - could lead to armed conflict.
Syria's claim that Israel Air Force jets infiltrated its airspace pre-dawn Thursday has the potential of becoming just that - a miscalculation - and depending on President Bashar Assad's response, it could very well lead to all-out war.
Not much is known about the late-night flyover. The IDF is, unusually, refusing to comment, and most of the information coming out on the incident is from Syrian military and government sources. The IDF's response is intended to blur the incident.
If the Syrian report is true, as it seems to be, the question which begs to be asked is what was a formation of four-to-five IAF fighter jets doing over the northern Syrian coastal city of Latakia?
There are several possibilities: Firstly that the planes were collecting intelligence, possibly connected to Syria's Scud missile launchers that are believed to be stored in the northern part of the country. If that is the case, then why did they break the sound barrier, as the Syrians reported? If they were intelligence surveillance aircraft, they probably would have wanted to operate covertly and not out in the open.
There could be several explanations - Israel might have been checking out the capabilities of Syria's newly-delivered and Russian-developed anti-aircraft systems.
Whatever it was, the question the IDF top brass is asking itself now is - will the incident lead to war? Following the Second Lebanon War and the rising tensions with Damascus, Military Intelligence's assessment was that the IDF no longer had the privilege of flying over Syria without risking a harsh military response. Forays, like the one over Assad's palace in Latakia following the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Schalit in Gaza last June, were now deemed dangerous moves that ran the risk of leading Israel and Syria to war.
What is concerning is the escalation in Syrian rhetoric, particularly the remarks made by the Syrian information minister, who said Thursday that his country would "find the way" to respond to the alleged Israeli infiltration.
According to IDF assessments, Syria is not really interested in an armed conflict with Israel but has - since the Second Lebanon War - been preparing for war. Due to a lack of communication between the two countries, the IDF assessment has been that a war could erupt if a diplomatic resolution is not reached beforehand.
If it wants war, this could explain why Syria is playing up the alleged infiltration - preparing to use the IAF flyover as their casus belli and as an excuse to be used to accuse Israel of committing an act of aggression that led to war.