Even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plane was en route to Moscow on Wednesday, Israel’s top security officials were dealing with an aerial incident in the north. An Israeli Patriot battery had taken down a Syrian drone that had penetrated Israeli territory after it had first crossed from Syria over Jordan.
But the interception was preceded by hesitation. Only after Israel made sure that the drone did not belong to the Russian air force was final approval given to shoot it down.
A calculated risk was taken. The drone was shot down when it was nearly 10 kilometers into Israeli air space. One can assume that the preliminary checks included a phone call to the Russians via the dedicated line for preventing friction that the two countries have maintained for the past three years.
The background to this incident, the second one of its kind in recent weeks, is connected to the campaign Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is conducting against the rebels in southern Syria. In the Daraa region it has obtained surrender agreements, even though the city itself has yet to be conquered by Syrian army forces. Accordingly, the regime is moving its efforts westward, closer to the Israeli border.
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The aircraft shot down Wednesday afternoon was an unarmed intelligence drone. It’s possible that it strayed from its flight path. But it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that its operators were taking advantage of the chaos at the border to photograph sites in Israel. Israel’s policy in any case, is consistent: An immediate response to every violation of sovereignty, fire into our territory, or a violation of the 1974 cease-fire accords on the Golan Heights (a recent addition since the regime’s return to southern Syria).
Now that the fighting is getting closer to the Golan, Israel is upholding its policy more firmly. In the previous incident in late June, a Patriot missile was fired at a drone (apparently belonging to either Iran or Hezbollah) that was approaching the area of the dilution of forces on the Golan. The Patriot missed the target, but the feeling in the Israel Defense Forces was that the message was conveyed to the other side. This past weekend a Syrian army position was attacked after a mortar fired by Assad’s soldiers at rebels in Quneitra “slipped” toward the border with Israel.
The IDF emphasizes that the drone was spotted when it was still in Syrian territory, that its movements were monitored and that fighter planes and helicopters were dispatched and the Patriot battery in Safed was placed on alert. During an internal air force inquiry it presumably will be debated whether the drone should have been intercepted earlier, before penetrating so deeply into Israeli air space.
Still, it can be assumed that the ultimate consideration here was diplomatic-strategic: Netanyahu would not want to land in Moscow to find that his first task was to explain to his host, President Vladimir Putin, why a Russian drone had been shot down. Israel now needs Russia badly, first and foremost to make good on its promise to keep Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias away from its border in the Golan Heights. When this is the top priority, Israel is willing to take certain risks.