Last week, Israel attacked a Syrian government facility that it claimed was used in the production of chemical weapons. That claim was unusual considering that Syria’s chemical weapons and its ability to produce them were dismantled under UN supervision in 2013. This attack was just one of many attacks Israel has launched against government-held territory since Syria’s conflict began nearly seven years ago.
Though the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, has declined to respond to these unilateral attacks or Israeli violations of Syrian airspace in the past, all that changed last Saturday when Syria’s Air Defense Force shot down an Israeli Air Force jet. The F-16 jet, which had reportedly illegitimately entered Syrian airspace near the Syrian capital of Damascus, later crashed in Israeli territory after its two pilots ejected.
As a result, Israel launched multiple retaliatory strikes against other Syrian military installations near Damascus. Multiple rounds of missile launches were confirmed and reports indicates Israel was pounding the Damascus countryside with artillery for much of the day. There were also reports of Israel launching missiles into central Syria that also targeted the Syrian military; NPR reported that “Israeli airstrikes in Syria killed at least six members of the Syrian military or allied militia members” during the Saturday incident.
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) issued a statement during Saturday’s morning chaos:
“The IDF will act determinately against such severe violations of Israeli sovereignty by Iran and Syria and will continue to act as necessary. The IDF is ready for various scenarios and will continue to act according to situation assessments.” Meanwhile, the Syrian government accused Israel of unwarranted ‘aggression’.”
Though casual observers of the Syrian conflict may find Saturday’s events as having come out of nowhere, those who have closely followed the conflict are likely aware of longstanding discord related to the background between Israel and Syria.
Five years before the conflict in Syria, the government of Israel worked with other countries to overthrow the Assad government; Wikileaks cables indicate this strategy included creating sectarian strife in the country and isolating Syria from its strongest regional ally, Iran. Israel has long sought to officially annex the Syrian land it seized in the Golan Heights – due to their sizable natural gas reserves. However, Assad is a major obstacle to that annexation as well as Israel’s other regional ambitions.
The plan sought the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt in fomenting the “breakdown” of the Assad regime as a way of weakening both Iran and Hezbollah— with the effect of empowering both Israel and the Gulf monarchies, two seemingly antagonistic forces in the region that are becoming increasingly allied.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on board with the plan, as revealed by emails published by WikiLeaks. One of those emails stated that “The best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad.”
It also noted that “A successful intervention in Syria would require substantial diplomatic and military leadership from the United States.” It added that “arming the Syrian rebels and using western air power to ground Syrian helicopters and airplanes is a low-cost high payoff approach.”
However, that “low-cost high payoff approach” has not gone as planned. Instead, Assad has managed to consolidate large parts of Syrian territory once lost to the “rebels,” the vast majority of which are terrorist groups or their affiliates.
Israel has grown more focused on regime change in Syria, as evidenced by the “dozens and dozens” of attacks they have launched against Syria and last year’s threats to assassinate Assad by bombing his residence.
Following the weekend’s developments regarding Israel and Syria, Tillerson was quick to declare that he was “quite concerned” about the clash that unfolded between Israel and Syria and Iran.
“I think this again illustrates why Iran’s presence in Syria is only destabilizing to the region. We think Iran needs to withdraw its military, its militia from Syria and allow the hope for the peace process to take hold in Geneva,” Tillerson said.
Tensions have appeared to dissipate for the time being; Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was responsible for diffusing a “simmering conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria” that “could have erupted into another regional war” by making a “furious phone call” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a report by Business Insider. However, given the recent escalation between Israel and Iran/Syria, a regime change war may not be out of the question, complete with U.S. involvement.
Indeed, the U.S. is the largest sponsor of the IDF, giving Israel $10 million in military aid per day. The U.S. is also committed to remaining involved in Syria as seen in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s announcement to retain U.S. troops and their recent attack this past Wednesday on Syrian military positions that included Russian soldiers – an attack which came soon after Israel’s. If such a war came to pass, it may not remain a regional war between just Israel and Syria for very long.