With Syria focused on ending war, it’s unlikely downed jet was threat to Israel

Recent flareups along restive northern border are spillover from regime bombardment, as Damascus and Moscow seek to bring last rebel stronghold in south to heel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A picture taken on July 24, 2018 from the Tal Saki hill in the Golan Heights shows smoke rising above buildings across the border in Syria during air strikes backing a Syrian-government-led offensive in the southwestern province of Daraa. (AFP/ JALAA MAREY)
A picture taken on July 24, 2018 from the Tal Saki hill in the Golan Heights shows smoke rising above buildings across the border in Syria during air strikes backing a Syrian-government-led offensive in the southwestern province of Daraa. (AFP/ JALAA MAREY)

Shortly after its jet was downed Tuesday, Syria issued a statement blaming Israel. Damascus was also quick to explain that its plane was on a mission as part of its “offensive against terrorists” in the Yarmouk Basin.

Though it’s difficult to say for certain he did not enter Israeli airspace intentionally, a view of the Syrian conflict from above would seem to suggest pilot Col. Amran Mara’e simply strayed over Israeli airspace, making him the latest victim of spillover violence from the quickly fading Syrian civil war.

There is little to suggest the Syrian air force had any intention of striking Israeli targets; rather, the pilot was probably busy bombing rebel targets adjacent to the Syria-Jordan-Israel border triangle as part of a wide Syrian and Russian offensive.

This enclave, adjacent the southern Golan Heights, is under control of a jihadist group linked to the Islamic State. The affiliate is one of the last IS-linked groups controlling territory in Syria, and one of the last holdouts of any rebel group, with Bashar Assad’s forces now in control of some 70% of Syrian territory.

View of the trail left in the sky by a Patriot missile that was fired to intercept a Syrian jet entering Israel from Syria, as seen in the northern Israeli city of Safed, on July 24, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In recent weeks, regime forces have managed to purge southern Syria — most notably in the provinces of Daara and Quneitra — of rebel strongholds.

The regime’s strategy in these areas — bombing rebel targets and only afterwards extending offers for voluntary evacuation — is now playing out in this triangular region.

Syrian soldiers flashing the victory sign as they sit on their military vehicle at Naseeb border crossing with Jordan, in the southern province of Daraa, Syria, July 7, 2018. (SANA via AP)

On Tuesday morning, the Syrians tried to persuade the rebels in the triangle to follow thousands of their counterparts in Quneitra, who have agreed to leave for rebel-held Idlib in recent days.

However, given the armed rebels’ refusal to lay down their arms, the regime walked back the offer and returned to its heavy bombardment of the area, including airstrikes.

A picture taken on July 23, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a warplane dropping a payload in the southwestern Syrian province of Daraa during a Syrian-government-led offensive in the area. (AFP /JALAA MAREY)

The consequence was evident in the launch of two SS-21 rockets near the Israeli border (triggering rocket sirens in Israel and the firing of two interceptor missiles) on Monday, and the downing of the Syrian jet on Tuesday.

If the pattern in other areas is any guide, soon enough this triangle region, too, will also be under Syrian control and quiet may return to Israel’s Golan frontier.

But with quiet come fears Iranian-backed forces may return as well.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian military chief of staff Gen. Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the future of Syria, and offered to keep Iranian troops and Iran-backed fighters in Syria at least 100 kilometers from Israel’s northern border.

Syrian government forces’ soldiers wave their national flags after taking back the city of Quneitra from the rebels, on July 19, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Youssef KARWASHAN)

Currently, there are about 20,000 Iranian soldiers and Iran-backed militants (including Hezbollah) fighting in Syria, and Tehran is heavily invested in establishing military bases for them throughout the country.

Moscow may able to distance them from the border, and could possibly even oust them from Syria completely. The critical question is whether Russia wants to do so.

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