Potential New Crisis Between Israel And Syria Looms As Assad Pushes Toward Israeli Border

Israel and Russia reportedly struck a deal to get Iran off the Israeli border, but there may already be cracks appearing in any such arrangement.

Sara Lemel/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

One of Israel’s Patriot surface-to-air missile systems attempted to shoot down an intruding drone near the country’s border with Syria, a sign that tensions are still high weeks after a major Israeli skirmish with Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in the area. The incident also underscores the complexities and potential pitfalls with an apparent Russian-brokered deal that would see Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad regain control of the region in exchange for moving Iran’s forces away from the boundary.

On June 24, 2018, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed that they had detected an unmanned aerial vehicle in Syria flying toward the border and fired the Patriot missile at it in response. They also acknowledged that there was no indication that they had shot the drone down and that the pilotless plane appeared to retreat to safety.

“The IDF's aerial defense system identified the threat in advance before it crossed into Israeli territory,” according to an official Tweet. “The IDF will not allow the State of Israel's aerial sovereignty to be violated and will operate to prevent any attempts to harm its civilians.”

This isn’t the first time Israeli forces have engaged drones along its border with Syria. In September 2017, Israel reported downing an unmanned aircraft belonging to the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah flying over the disputed Golan Heights. Two months later, an Israeli Patriot blew apart one of the Syrian regime’s unmanned aerial vehicles in the same general area.

In February 2018, an Israeli AH-64 Apache gunship shot down an Iranian drone that was reportedly carrying weapons and was on its way to attack targets in Israel. This incident touched off a sequence of events that left one of Israel’s F-16I Sufa multi-role combat jets destroyed and an unknown F-15 type damaged.

But this latest altercation comes nearly two months after a much more serious exchange between Israel and Iran. On May 10, 2018, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or forces under its control, fired a number of rockets across the Syrian border toward Israeli villages. The IDF aircraft and ground forces quickly took action, destroying dozens of targets in Syria linked to the regime in Tehran, as well as elements of Assad’s air defenses that attempted to shoot down Israeli jets.

So, while this latest IDF decision to try and shoot down a potentially hostile drone turned out to be relatively uneventful, it’s clear that it could have quickly escalated into a more serious and dangerous situation. It also points to the increased potential for clashes as Assad works to reassert his regime’s authority, with Russian assistance, in southern Syria, right up to the Israeli border.

Earlier in June 2018, Syrian government forces and other elements aligned with Assad began a renewed offensive to retake Daraa, which is situated less than 10 miles from the Jordanian border and less than 30 miles southeast of the Golan. The strategic city and its suburbs have been important hubs for Syrian rebels fighting the government in Damascus, including groups that had received assistance from the United States and its allies.

In July 2017, the United States, Russia, and Jordan agreed to establish a so-called “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria, with the goal of implementing a de facto ceasefire between Assad and rebel groups in the area. The Syrian regime, however, was never formally a party to that agreement and, along with its Iranian allies, has continued operations in the region in spite of the deal.

“We … caution the Syrian regime against any actions that risk broadening the conflict or jeopardize the ceasefire,” top State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement regarding the issue on May 25, 2018. “Russia is duly responsible as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to use its diplomatic and military advantage over the Assad regime to stop attacks and compel the Assad regime to cease further military offensives."

Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik via AP

Syrian government forces south of the capital Damascus in May 2018.

Russian forces have now violated the arrangement themselves by supporting Syrian advances with their characteristically brutal and indiscriminate air strikes. The U.S. government's warning, which included a threat that it could act to enforce the de-confliction zone in some way, appears to have had no real impact on their decision-making process. And that may be entirely by design.

“You should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us,” the U.S. government reportedly said in a letter to Free Syrian Army rebel factions that Reuters obtained on June 23, 2018. “We in the United States government understand the difficult conditions you are facing and still advise the Russians and the Syrian regime not to undertake a military measure that violates the zone.”

Ameer Alhalbi/NurPhoto/Sipa via AP

Free Syrian Army rebels fire an improvised rocket launcher at Assad's forces in 2015.

This followed earlier reports that suggested that Israel and Russia had come to an agreement that would see Assad retake areas all the way to the Golan in exchange for moving Iranian and Iranian-support forces at least 35 miles from the border. Neither Israeli nor Russian officials confirmed the arrangement, but the IDF did confirm that it had established communications to “de-conflict” its operations with the Russians.

“We do not coordinate [with Russia],” a senior Israeli military officer told The Times of Israel. “It’s about de-confliction and security measures, so they don’t harm us and we don’t harm them.”

Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in May 2018.

The United States’ decision to effectively abandon Syrian rebel groups would suggest that President Donald Trump and his administration had decided to acquiesce to the Russian-Israeli bargain, even if only unofficially. It’s not clear whether or not Jordan – a major U.S. ally and counter-terrorism partner in the Middle East and beyond – has been party to any of these negotiations on the future of southern Syria, which also impacts its shared border.

That the U.S. government could have decided to at least step aside in the face of an Israeli-Russian agreement is hardly surprising. Trump himself has personally criticized American support for Syrian rebel groups on numerous occasions, has called for the United States to withdraw from operations in the country, and is an outspoken supporter of Israel, notably making the controversial decision to move the U.S. Embassy in that country into the hotly contested city of Jerusalem. Separately, in northern Syria, the United States has been similarly ironing out a deal with Turkey that has sidelined American-backed Kurdish forces in the strategic city of Manbij, despite the fact that those groups were essential in driving out ISIS terrorists from the region and keeping them on the run.

The recent drone incident near Israel, however, highlights how complex and potentially fragile any arrangement in southern Syria might turn out to be, even in the near term. Most importantly, officials in Moscow do not speak in any way for Iran and they could find it difficult to make good on any deals to remove Iranian forces from the border area.

Ilia Yefimovich/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

Israeli self-propelled howitzers near the border with Syria in May 2018.

And though Russia seems eager to drive a wedge between Assad and his Iranian partners, the Kremlin has shown itself either unwilling or unable to entirely control the regime in Damascus. Russian President Vladimir Putin has very clear designs on expanding Russian influence in Syria, the Middle East as a whole, and elsewhere, and is pursuing policies that support those interests above any others. 

At the same time, Israel and Assad remain effectively at war, as well, with the final status of the Golan Heights being a particular point of contention. Israeli forces seized control of the region during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but withdrew from a buffer area as part of a U.N.-backed deal in 1974

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) had maintained forces in the area to monitor the ceasefire agreement, but those elements came under attack from ISIS terrorists in 2014 and abandoned a number of posts. Assad has attempted on multiple occasions to use the situation as an excuse to take back control of portions of the U.N.-maintained demilitarized zone.

In April 2018, Israel complained to the United Nations that Syrian forces had moved tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons into the buffer area in violation of the ceasefire. On June 24, 2018, there were reports that Assad’s troops had taken control of an UNDOF observation post and had begun expanding its facility to supporter a larger government presence. Israel's Kan News released video showing activity at the site in its televised report, seen below.

“[Israel is] aware of what is taking place, and views the infrastructure work at the post as a serious and flagrant violation of the separation-of-forces agreement,” the IDF said in a statement. “[UNDOF is responsible] for monitoring and acting against military forces in the buffer zone, and [the IDF] is determined to prevent military consolidation in the area.”

The implication here is that Israeli forces could strike Assad’s troops in and around the Golan if they don’t withdraw. That, in turn, could upend any agreement the Russians facilitated regarding Syrian forces operating in the general area.

If that deal falters, Israel could easily find itself facing a complicated mix of Syrian, Russian, and Iranian forces along the shared boundary. Israel, as well as the United States, might also find they have few willing partners left in the region to oppose those forces, having ostensibly cast them aside in this attempt to get Iran off the border.

As always when it comes to the conflict in and around Syria, there is a significant potential for any subsequent crisis to rapidly escalate into a larger conflagration. Assad could seek to play his Russian and Iranian benefactors off of each other while at the same time attempting to reassert himself in southern Syria to include parts of the Golan.

Mikhael Klimentyev/Sputnik via AP

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad during a meeting with Putin in May 2018.

Israel is unlikely to find that any more acceptable than Iranian forces massed along their border in Syria and could decide to take unilateral action if the United Nations proves incapable of forcing Assad to temper his ambitions. Regardless of the outcome, the regime in Damascus would be hard pressed to ever completely deny Iran and Iranian-backed militias the freedom to at least harass Israeli, which serves its own interests.

And with Trump still looking to extricate the United States from Syria broadly, it’s not clear how or if the U.S. government might seek to intervene in any potential crisis. As already noted, the U.S. military’s existing partners in southern Syria already feel spurned and might decide to pursue their own agendas with backing from where ever they can find it. That reality could create yet another layer of complexity in the region in general.

All told, the Syrian push toward Daraa could fundamentally change the political and military landscape along the border with Israel. That its air defenses are still shooting at potentially hostile drones shows that whatever deals Israel may have made with Russia, or anyone else the region, may not necessarily be as long-lasting and robust as they hoped.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com