Discussing 'red lines': Israel hedges military options in Syria

In the wake of the alarming exchange between Israel and Syria earlier this week, Israel braces for a possible escalation.

IDF tanks are seen along the Golan Heights border with Syria (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF tanks are seen along the Golan Heights border with Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli fighter jets on Monday destroyed a Syrian SA-5 anti-aircraft battery east of Damascus, after the missile defense system had fired at Israeli reconnaissance planes conducting routine flights in Lebanese airspace.
It reportedly follows numerous unpublicized instances in which Israeli military aircraft were similarly targeted, as well as a close-call episode in March when a Syrian government military installation launched three projectiles at Israeli jets tasked with striking a Hezbollah arms convoy destined for Lebanon.
"We see [President Bashar al-Assad] as responsible and see these missiles as a clear Syrian provocation—it will not be accepted," an Israeli army spokesman asserted following the latest incident. He stressed that while the Jewish state has no intention of becoming enmeshed in the Syrian conflict, the Israel Defense Forces will nevertheless respond to all direct hostilities against it.
For its part, the Assad regime warned of "harsh consequences to Israel's repeated aggressive attempts."
Speaking to The Media Line, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Relik Shafir, a former Israel Air Force pilot who partook in the 1981 assault on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, explained that while Monday's confrontation was potentially perilous, further escalation is unlikely.
"Israel's past experience—mainly with Assad's father who formerly commanded the Syrian Air Force—is that the regime and its forces are logical and not hot-headed," he explained.
"They were likely trying to test both Israel and the Russians, given the visit to Jerusalem by [Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu], and they got a very quick answer as to what to expect."
Russia intervened in the war in Syria in 2015, prompting Israel to devise a de-confliction mechanism with Moscow to prevent accidents between the two armies; the terms of which, in Shafir's estimation, "are kept quite strictly by both sides so that mistakes or not made—such as the one that occurred when the Turks shot down a Russian plane along the Syrian border in [2015]."
Netanyahu has made four trips to the Kremlin over the past eighteen months to press Israel's case to President Vladimir Putin. In this respect, the Israeli premier has repeatedly voiced concern over a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and the US in southern Syria, which he claims turns a blind eye to Tehran's goal of militarizing the Golan Heights, a red line for Jerusalem.
Such an eventuality would likewise allow the Islamic Republic to consolidate its so-called "Shiite Crescent," a contiguous land corridor spanning Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—a development vehemently opposed by Israel and regional Sunni countries that fear Iran's growing expansionism.
Israeli officialdom has made clear that Jerusalem will continue to employ force to unphold its demands; namely, to prevent both the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and the prospect of a permanent Iranian foothold in Syria.
Shafir believes that Putin may be amenable to these positions "as Russia has no interest in any disturbances along the Syrian or Lebanese borders with Israel." Nevertheless, he stressed, the IDF "prepares for any eventuality so that it has the capacity to act if the situation calls for it. If the Iranians, for example, establish any type of military infrastructure outside the purview of Damascus, then Israel maintains the right to respond to such a threat in order to uphold the equilibrium."
In fact, the Jewish state has a long history of doing just that in Syria, most notably its alleged destruction in 2007 of a suspected nuclear reactor in the Deir ez-Zor region.
Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Israel Ziv, who as the head of operations in the IDF's General Staff formulated the army's border strategies, agrees that Moscow holds the cards in Syria and is solely capable of reining in Iran.
"It is not a black and white situation, but the level of Iranian involvement is in the hands of the Russians," he contended to The Media Line. "For Moscow, kicking out Tehran entirely is not an option, but limiting its activity serves its interest as this allows Putin to maintain leverage over the US as well as regional countries."
Moreover, Ziv elaborated, "Iranian proxies are totally free to act in Syria and this goes against the Russian desire to create order. Putin wants to be the sole power in the country and this too is reason to minimize Iran's influence."
As regards Israel, Ziv stressed that the instability in Syria requires the IDF to act in order to preserve its deterrence. "In a chaotic situation Jerusalem has to be involved, and so there will always be a risk of escalation—but it is not high since the actors in Syria are quite exhausted and bloodied. Therefore, to open up a new front against Israel is not in their favor."
Accordingly, most analyst agree that for the time being the status quo will prevail, even as Israel prepares for any eventuality; that is, should Tehran raises the stakes by setting up permanent military bases in the Golan or, more acutely, if a future Israeli aircraft is unable to evade an incoming Syrian missile.
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