Thursday 17th of January 2019 |
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Avoiding a cliffhanger showdown in Syria - By Osama Al Sharif, The Jordan Times



Syria has become a congested arena for various state and no-state combatants, each with its own agenda. So much so that Saturday's precarious incident, when Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli F-16 fighter jet over northern Galilee, appeared inevitable. Israel retaliated by waging what
was described as the biggest air strikes on Syria in 30 year Israel. It said its jets had targeted Syrian and Iranian positions, while Tehran denied Israeli reports that the clash was triggered by an Iranian-made drone that had violated Israeli airspace earlier that day.
For few hours, it appeared that a major showdown was about to be unleashed. But Russia, the major powerbroker in Syria, called for restraint, and urged parties to respect the country's sovereignty. The US, Israel's closest ally, took its time to react and when it did, it said it had played no part in Saturday's events, while supporting Israel's right to defend itself.
The incident raised more questions than answers. Since 2014, Israel had repeatedly struck government and Hezbollah positions in Syria, but this was the first time that the Syrian air defence system responded and succeeded in hitting a target. The downing of the F-16 had rattled Israel, which while remaining defiant, appeared to be taking stock of this latest qualitative development. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu warned that Israel will not allow Iran to establish military bases or missile manufacturing sites in Syria. For Israel, Iran's proximity to the Golan and its presence, along with its Hizbollah proxy, in southern Syria will not be tolerated no matter the cost.
But how could an aging Soviet-made SA-5 missile knock out one of the most sophisticated fighter jets in operation? And could the launch of the missile, or missiles, have taken place without prior knowledge of the Russians who practically control Syria's air defence system? Could the downing of the Israeli jet be in response to the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi-25 over rebel-held Idlib province a week earlier? Back then, Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham claimed it fired a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile at the Russian fighter, raising questions about how it acquired such an advanced weapon.
A day before the Israeli jet was shot down, Turkey lost at least one helicopter over Afrin. It blamed US-backed Syrian Kurds. And last week Russia and the Damascus regime condemned a US-led coalition airstrike against government loyal militias, which may have included Russian and Iranian advisers, near Deir Ezzor. At least 100 fighters lost their lives.
Iran's growing threat to Israel in southern Syria notwithstanding, Saturday's incident may have been Moscow's way of sending a stern message to Washington. The US military presence in northeastern Syria, allegedly to fight Daesh, is being seen by Moscow as an attempt by Washington to squander
Russian gains and cripple Turkey's operation in Afrin.
So the question now is what happens next? Israel has never supported the trilateral agreement to enforce a de-escalation zone in southern Syria for failing to contain Iran's presence in that area. Moreover, Israel now claims that Iran is establishing an airbase near Palmyra in the Syrian badia and
could be setting up a missile factory there. Motives for future strikes remain valid for Israel.
While Syria, Iran and Hizbollah celebrated the downing of the Israeli F-16, describing it as the beginning of a new phase, Israel is insisting that the rules of engagement, which include launching preemptive strikes, have not changed. The next showdown will be crucial. It is now a matter of when rather than if. Iran is unlikely to roll back its plans in Syria, which sees it as an advanced base in confronting the Israeli enemy, and in return Israeli restraint will be in short supply. Russia will have a tough time constraining the Iranians in Syria.
That puts Russia and the US on a possible collision course if a more serious clash flares up between Damascus, backed by its Iranian ally, and Israel. The two sides are edging closer to a cliffhanger faceoff. With the political process to find a solution to Syria's predicament in disarray, the US and
Russia must collaborate to defuse a handful of flashpoints that could easily lead to a massive regional war.
For Russia, this means a revision of the recently failed meeting at Sochi. For the US, it involves reining in Israel, whose next move in Syria could inadvertently drag the region into a new conflict. Moreover, the US, whose strategy in Syria remains vague, must define its priorities. The only way to contain Iran and its proxies in Syria is to work with Russia and Syria's neighbors towards finding a political solution. Carving up the country and creating zones of influence for major players will ultimately lead to new clashes.

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