But the action didn’t stop there. Syrian regime forces hit one of the Israeli F-16s with antiaircraft fire. The plane crashed in northern Israel, and at least one of the two officers who ejected was severely injured.
The incident was another reminder of how entrenched the violence in Syria has become. As the country approaches a seventh year of conflict, the war taking place in its skies is growing more complicated, just as battles on the ground have.
The Israelis have bombed Syria numerous times over the course of the war — though this is their first public acknowledgment of hitting supposed Iranian positions there. They want to counter Iranian influence on their doorstep in the form of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite organization, and various pro-Iran militias, all deployed in defense of the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the Russians are relentlessly bombing Syrian rebel groups, often at the expense of civilians in their midst.
Turkey, after years of working toward Assad’s downfall, has started bombing Syrian Kurdish factions it sees as terrorist threats. The United States, of course, has conducted a devastating air campaign against the Islamic State, sometimes working in league with Syrian Kurds as well as other rebel outfits on the ground. And the Assad regime continues to bomb targets within the country and, according to the United Nations, is still striking civilian areas with chemical weapons.
Israel claimed its attacks served as a stark warning to Iran. “They, and we, know what we hit and it will take them some time for them to digest, understand and ask how Israel knew how to hit those sites,” Israeli Minister of Intelligence Israel Katz told Israel’s Army Radio. “These were concealed sites and we have intelligence agencies and the ability to know everything that is going on there and yesterday we proved that.”
The incident gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a potential corruption indictment at home, a chance to reprise his favored role as a champion of Israeli national security.
But Netanyahu seems to have few options in Syria. He has made overtures to Russia in a bid to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran, Assad’s two main foreign backers. Russian forces, though, were almost certainly complicit bystanders in Syria’s shadow war with Israel.
One of the Syrian bases “struck by Israel on Saturday houses not only Syrian soldiers but Russian military officers, too,” my colleague Adam Taylor noted. “Some Israeli observers have said it is hard to imagine that the Russians there would not have known about the Iranian drone or the subsequent antiaircraft fire.”
“Israel has no choice but to accept Moscow’s rules,” wrote Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer. “It will continue to demonstrate that it can fly over Syrian airspace and attack targets, but will nonetheless have to exercise much more caution. Russia, while it is not stopping the Israeli planes, despite its control over Syrian airspace, will not stop Assad’s military from trying to shoot them down either.”
So, beyond public snarling and a few covert strikes, the Israelis are themselves unlikely to risk further escalation.
But there is still the looming prospect of a bloodier conflagration. “An altercation between [Israel and Lebanon] involving Hezbollah could ignite another war across their borders and beyond,” the International Crisis Group noted in a new report. “As for Damascus and its backers, a massive campaign by Israel will do enormous damage to their achievements, perhaps even destabilizing the regime itself, which would sow discord between Russia and Israel.”
Either way, the situation means more pain for Syria’s beleaguered civilians. “The first weeks of 2018 have turned into one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict yet,” The Post’s Liz Sly wrote last week, “with hundreds killed in airstrikes, nearly 300,000 displaced in northwestern Syria and 400,000 at risk of starvation in a besieged area east of Damascus that has not received food since November.”
“Numerous plans to limit the human toll have been floated, only to sink without trace,” Simon Tisdall noted in a scathing essay in the Observer, referring to the fleeting talk of “safe havens” within Syria and the “faltering” Russian-backed scheme of “de-escalation” zones that numerous parties to the conflict have flouted.
Washington, meanwhile, is little more than a bystander. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have focused primarily on defeating the Islamic State while skirting a reckoning with the Assad regime. It has led to a situation where America’s most important proxies in Syria will likely have to turn to Damascus.
“In the end, our Syrian Kurdish and Syrian Arab allies must strike a deal with Assad,” Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, said in congressional testimony last week. “Unless we are prepared for an indefinite military presence, that deal will largely be on Assad’s terms because he will wait us out.”
And the damage is not just to U.S. credibility.
“The failure to end the war has done enormous damage to the international institutions that have shaped global affairs since 1945,” Tisdall wrote. “It has altered the strategic power balance in fundamental ways, permanently changing the world we live in. . . . If the war has proved anything, it is that among Syria’s neighbors, concern for Syrian lives, territorial integrity, national identity or democratic governance does not rate highly.”
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