A fierce aerial battle points to the risks of regional escalation
IT LASTED only six hours, but the battle in the sky above Syria and Israel in the early hours of February 10th came close to turning a bloody civil war into a regional one. The danger of Syria’s almost seven-year-old conflict escalating has been mounting in recent months, not least because of the number of foreign forces sucked into it. Russia and America both have troops on the ground and planes in the air above Syria. So, too, does Turkey. Iran, meanwhile, arms and supports various Shia militias that are fighting to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. These include Hizbullah, a Lebanese militia cum political party that fought a bloody war with Israel in 2006.
The latest battle began with an incursion into Israeli airspace by what the Israeli military says was an Iranian reconnaissance drone. It was promptly shot down by an Israeli helicopter. The next stage was an Israeli retaliatory strike aimed at the base from which the drone was controlled. One of the attacking F-16 fighter-jets was hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed in the Galilee, in Israel, with its crew-members bailing out over home soil. But the downing was enough to provoke a further wave of attacks by Israel, this time aimed at Syrian air-defence batteries and what Israel claimed were “Iranian military targets” on Syrian soil.
By noon it was all over, each side licking its wounds, and refraining from further escalation, in part because of discreet conciliatory messages passed between Israel and Syria by Russia. None of the parties involved wants to go to war at present. The Assad regime is focused on consolidating its control of the country, and Iran wants more time to establish an enduring military presence there. Israel, for its part, is intent on keeping Iran from digging in and on limiting its transfers of weapons to Hizbullah. In order to do that Israel wants to preserve its freedom to strike targets in Syria at will. And Russia has been playing off Iran and Israel by allowing each to intervene in Syria.
For much of the past seven years, Israel has carried out periodic, pinpoint attacks on convoys and depots of Iranian weapons destined for Hizbullah’s arsenals in Lebanon. Most of these have not been acknowledged by Israel and have passed without incident. Since it deployed its forces to Syria in September 2015, Russia has usually turned a blind eye to Israeli attacks, even though it is propping up the Assad regime and is tacitly allied with Iran.
The regime, with the help of Russian bombers, is pummelling the remaining rebel pockets of Idlib in north-west Syria and Ghouta near Damascus. Meanwhile Russia has also stepped aside and allowed Turkey to embark on its own punishing campaign against Kurdish forces near its border.
Yet Saturday morning’s flare-up was a reminder of the fragility of the situation Russia is presiding over. Had the Israeli pilots bailed out over enemy territory and Israel launched a rescue operation, the conflict could quickly have escalated. With so many combatants and flashpoints, Russia may struggle to keep the lid on things the next time one of the parties pushes a little too far.