Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Same scenario, different conditions

Why has Syria apparently not reacted to the Israeli air strikes on its territory, asks Fadi ElHusseini

Al-Ahram Weekly

Breaching the UN charter and violating the sovereignty of other countries through air-strikes is nothing new. The major powers have long adopted such practices in order to achieve quick, clean and accurate goals, avoiding the complications of ground operations that may bring unforeseen consequences. The US strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 following the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were a case in point. The present US targeting of Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen is another case in point.

Israel has also adopted such bullying behaviour through conducting air-strikes against its enemies, the most striking case being in 1981 when it targeted and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. Israel also targeted several military buildings and convoys in Sudan in 2009, 2011 and 2012. In Syria, Israel has adopted an air-strike strategy as many as five times in fewer than twelve years, and each time the Syrian regime has retained the right to retaliate. In a different context, the Syrian regime downed a Turkish F-4 fighter over the Mediterranean in June last year.

At the end of January this year, Israeli F-15 jets attacked an installation north-east of the Syrian capital Damascus. Israel, which has softened its tone against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad since the outbreak of the uprising against it, refused to comment. However, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, while refraining from direct confirmation of Israeli involvement, said that “it’s another proof that when we say something we mean it. We say that we don’t think that it should be allowable to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon.”

Security reports said that the air-strikes had targeted a military convey bound for Lebanon, which implies an Israeli preemptive move to stop weapons getting into the hands of Hizbullah. However, the Syrian regime has refuted this story by claiming that the strikes targeted a scientific research centre near Damascus. Iran condemned the Israeli air-strikes, saying that Damascus retained a legal right to retaliate. Russia described the strikes as blatantly violating the UN charter, describing them as unacceptable. Other regional and international powers opted to remain silent.

According to many military experts, Turkey and Israel have the most sophisticated air capabilities in the Middle East region, and both countries have warplanes equipped with systems able to jam radar. Syrian ground defenses have been able to shoot down Turkish aircraft, while they have failed to do so on five different occasions in the case of Israeli ones.

In an attempt to explain this, some observers have commented that Syria’s ground defenses are too busy with the current turmoil in the country to pay attention to Israeli jets. This explanation is erroneous for two reasons. First, the circumstances under which Syria shot down the Turkish jet were not so very different from the current ones. Second, Syria has not been able to shoot down Israeli jets on past occasions either, when it was not mired in domestic turbulence and when it had the same ground defenses as it has today.

Given that the recent air-strikes took place in very different political conditions from the previous ones, examining their various dimensions requires an investigation of the motivations behind the Syrian decision apparently not to react to the Israeli jets making the strikes and the calculations of decision-makers in such conditions. The decision to shoot down foreign jets over Syria is a political decision, and two probable scenarios can be drawn.

The first is based on the assumption that the Syrian leadership has been dealing with this incident in accordance with a specific hypothesis. Syria’s calculation of the limits of any Turkish response to the downing of its warplane will have been made in tandem with its consciousness of the fact that Turkey would not want to immerse itself in a complicated war in the light of the current ethnic and sectarian complexities. Syria will also have been aware that shooting down an Israeli jet would be a tipping point for a likely massive backlash from Israel.

Needless to say, Israel yearns to instigate a scuffle and to lure Iran, Syria’s main ally, into open war with the international powers in order to deter it from developing its nuclear capabilities. In this scenario, Israel would remain a bystander and forgo unplanned actions, hoping to pile up challenges on the foundering Iranian regime and increase the chances of its exiting the regional equation.

The second probable scenario is based on the hypothesis that Syria’s decision not to shoot down the Israeli jets was designed to avert uncalculated reactions, especially those related to the external components of the equation. Adequate analysis and careful consideration have been the hallmarks of the Syrian regime, particularly under uneven conditions such as those that prevail today. In this scenario, the Syrian regime may be conceived as wanting to keep a winning card, one giving it the right to respond to the Israeli attack should the situation get worse, in order that it could at some future time release the pressure and complicate the already tangled equations in the ongoing conflict.

This form of outmoded brinkmanship was adopted by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein when he launched missiles against Israel during the Gulf war. The move was designed to release pressure and to engage new parties in the war with a view to complicating the original calculations and distracting attention.

In the current Syrian upheaval, the losers will remain the ordinary citizens of Syria. Whereas the major powers have shown less patience and zero tolerance towards other conflicts in the past, their reluctance to take action in Syria is leading to further atrocities and more bloodshed. Hesitation spawns confusion, and confusion leads to uncertainty. This is dangerous since it is hard to staunch the eventual lack of confidence and increasing mistrust in the universal values of justice.

The scenes that we have recently witnessed, which have surpassed the likes of others seen elsewhere, should motivate everyone to try to put an end to this ongoing calamity.

The writer is a counsellor at the Embassy of Palestine in Ankara.

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