The main stories on the television news and websites are talking about an escalation in the north. But this is not a long-term escalation and does not herald a war on the Syrian border. The two latest incidents – missiles fired by the Syrian army toward Israel on Monday; and the Israel Defense Forces’ downing of a Syrian fighter jet on Tuesday – are side effects of the main operation that is already underway: the Syrian Army’s retaking of southern Syria.
The Sukhoi jet shot down Tuesday afternoon was en route to a mission against the rebels in Syria’s southern Golan Heights. The local militias have already surrendered to the regime in most of the Golan Heights.
President Bashar Assad’s forces are advancing with practically zero resistance and Israel is keeping its contact with the area to a minimum. Soon, it will have to consider shutting down the “Good Neighbor” mission that in recent years has provided food, medicine and medical treatment to tens of thousands of Syrians from villages across the border.
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The last stronghold of resistance to the regime is in the southwestern corner of the Golan Heights. Most recent estimates say there are some 1,200 fighters there from the local branch of the Islamic State group. The current airstrikes, rocket fire and heavy artillery fire are all meant to wear down the fighters’ resistance. As it looks now, the deviations and spillover into Israel are due to errors on the part of the Syrian military and not meant as deliberate provocations.
As was the case with the SS-21 missiles fired toward Israel on Monday, Israel cannot really concern itself with the intentions of the missile launchers or the pilots who approach its territory. Again in recent days, warnings have been relayed through various channels – including UN observers and Russian forces – that Israel will view any violation of its sovereignty gravely and act forcefully to eliminate any potential security threat.
The Sukhoi jet, which took off from the T-4 airbase near Homs, northern Syria (a base where Israel has allegedly conducted airstrikes against Iranian forces), flew from north to south and penetrated nearly 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) into Israel airspace. The plane was downed by two Patriot missiles – the second such downing in less than four years.
As soon as Assad’s forces and the Russians vanquish the rebels, there will be a new situation on the border. Israel is trying to “reset” the situation in the Golan Heights, based on the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement that applied there until the regime withdrew under pressure from the rebels four years ago. Hence the daily statements by Israeli officials about this agreement going back into effect. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated it again Tuesday evening after the downing of the Syrian plane.
From an Israeli perspective, though, the Syrian regime is the smaller headache.
The heart of the current discussion with Russia – the real power calling the shots in Syria – is about the wider arrangements for the day after the rebels fall: that is, keeping the Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias out of southern Syria.
This was the reason behind Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov’s visit to Israel on Monday (the first visit by a Russian military chief of staff to Israel, as far as the IDF can recall). The two came to ensure Israel will not hinder the continued conquest of the southern Golan Heights, and also to calm Israeli fears about Iran exploiting the new situation in southern Syria.
The diplomatic source who briefed Israeli reporters after the meeting sounded very optimistic. Russia is pledging to keep the Iranians and their allies as far as 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the border, in an arc that passes far to the east and north of Damascus (in previous talks, it used to be 80 kilometers).
Israel is demanding the removal of long-range Iranian missiles from all of Syria; a halt to the manufacture of precision missiles within Syria that are meant for Hezbollah; and the closure of the border crossings that are used for arms smuggling. And in the future, Israel will insist upon its original demand that all Iranian fighters be removed from all of Syria.
The Russians have responded positively, it seems. Still, certain questions should be asked: How durable is a promise from Moscow? How does Russia intend to enforce the details of the new arrangement? How can it be ensured that Shi’ite fighters, ununiformed or disguised in Syrian Army fatigues, don’t infiltrate the forces that will be permitted to remain in the south? And is Israel placing too much faith in Russian promises?
The problem of an Iranian presence in southern Syria is not an immediate one. Tehran will likely take its time to study the new situation before it makes any new moves near the border.
And events of the past few months have also taught Iran three things: That Israel has excellent intelligence in Syria; that Israel will not hesitate to attack there to safeguard its interests; and that Moscow doesn’t care anymore if Iranian sites are hit.
But the Iranians have patience. A long-term strategic game is now going on to our north, and the last word has yet to be spoken.