Analysis

Assad's Attack on Israel Intended to Defend His Honor, Not Country

The Syrian firing of missiles at Israeli jets doesn’t necessarily point to a critical situation on the border. If the shooting continues, however, Israel will be obliged to eliminate the danger – and the road to a direct clash won't be that long.

The past week’s almost automatic response pattern entails risks that could lead to escalation.
Daniel Bar-On, Ronen Zvulun/Reuters, Reuters

Paradoxically, it was the border with Israel – the quietest and most marginal in the Syrian conflict – which supplied the first significant violation of the cease-fire that took effect on Monday night. Israel’s almost routine response to Syrian violations, which have become frequent recently, prompted a highly unusual response from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime: The firing of missiles at Israel Air Force planes.

The Syrian surface-to-air missiles missed their targets and apparently didn’t seriously endanger them. That didn’t stop the Syrian media from declaring that one Israeli plane and one Israeli drone had been downed – a blatant lie that was received skeptically, even in the Arab world.

Nevertheless, the Netanyahu government must now reconsider its policies. Has an overly predictable pattern of behavior not been created, which will ultimately expose Israel to risk? And what message is the Syrian dictator trying to send, on the very day that Russia managed to arrange a cease-fire that is likely to ensure his continuance in power?

Last week, rebel groups on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights began an offensive aimed at distancing Assad’s forces and affiliated militias, including Hezbollah, from Quneitra and positions near the Druze town of Khader, both areas near the Israeli border (regime forces are no longer present on the border itself.)

Assad’s forces responded with artillery shells and mortar fire – imprecise weapons that ended up landing in Israel, time after time, landing near the town of Majdal Shams. With a rebel command post located very close to the Israeli border, the margin of error is small; thus it’s no surprise that regime fire sometimes strays into Israeli territory.

The army responded to several such incidents over the past week with airstrikes on Syrian positions. The last of these prompted the Syrians to respond with anti-aircraft missiles.

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It was a dangerous provocation by the regime, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the situation on the border has grown critical or that Assad has any interest in clashing with Israel. It’s more likely that this was muscle-flexing for public relations purposes, and that the false claim of having downed an Israeli aircraft was meant to defend Assad’s honor against what he views as Israeli humiliations.

As noted, the Golan is a secondary front in Syria’s civil war. For some time now, the rebels have been trying to link up their forces in the south and central Golan with their enclave near Beit Jinn, east of Mount Hermon, which would threaten the Quneitra-Damascus road. The regime wants to keep this corridor open, and also wants to prevent the rebels from advancing toward the southern corner of the Syrian-Lebanese border, which could allow them to threaten Hezbollah on its home ground.

The continued fire on the Golan could simply indicate that both sides need time to adjust to the cease-fire after such a long period of fighting.

The few details published about the Russian-American deal that led to the cease-fire indicate that the powers will test the truce for a few days – and if it works, they will probably launch a coordinated assault against the most radical rebel organizations, Nusra Front and Islamic State. This gives the extremist groups every reason in the world to keep fighting, and to try to draw other factions in as well, so that they aren’t left alone in the sights of the superpowers.

The past week’s almost automatic response pattern entails risks that could lead to escalation. If, for instance, missiles are fired again at Israeli jets, Israel will have to eliminate this threat to its planes. From there, the road to a direct clash with Assad’s forces isn’t that long.