The Latest Israel-Syria Clashes: New Escalation or More of the Same?

Global Challenges Conflict

The Latest Israel-Syria Clashes: New Escalation or More of the Same?

Posted on: 22nd March 2017
Adam Hoffman
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, PhD Candidate

As the Syrian civil war entered its sixth year earlier this week, clashes between Israel and Syria call into question Israel’s long-held policy towards the conflict raging on its northern border.

Last Friday, Israeli Air Force jets attacked targets within its northern neighbour. In response to the attacks, Syrian air defence systems fired into Israel from Syria. The rockets were intercepted by an anti-ballistic Arrow missile over the Jordan Valley, north of Jerusalem. That incident was followed by several other Israeli attacks inside Syria. In the latest incident, Israeli jets were reported to have carried out airstrikes near Damascus early on Wednesday.

Israeli assaults in Syria are not a new development. For more than five years now, according to foreign reports, Israel has carried out attacks against targets in the country in order to prevent the transfer of what it defines as "game changing weapons" to the Shia extremist group Hizbullah by Iran. Hizbullah has been deeply involved in the Syrian War, supporting Assad's forces in their fight against the Syrian rebels as part of the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis. Its involvement in Syria provided Hizbullah with valuable conflict experience, and Iranian weapon deliveries have improved its capabilities. As a result, Israel is deeply concerned by the growing threat posed by Hizbullah. Lately, the Israeli military has referred to Hizbullah as a medium-sized army, and not a guerilla organisation.

Reflecting on Israel's growing concern regarding Hizbullah, Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said recently that “Hizbullah is the number one challenge facing the IDF,” adding that Israel has been closely monitoring “the regular use of tactical chemical weapons in the fighting in Syria.” 

After the recent clashes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly commented on this policy: “We will not allow Israel to be attacked from Syrian territory and we will not tolerate the transfer of advanced weaponry of those entering Syria — Hizbullah — to the extent that we detect it.” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman also publicly commented on this policy by saying that "our main problem is with the transfer of advanced weapons from Syria to Lebanon. That is why every time we identify an attempt to smuggle game-changing weapons, we will act to thwart it." 

In this sense, the recent Israeli attack marks the continuation of an existing policy against any transfer of weapons by Iran to Lebanese Shia militia. However, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Israel Air Force's recognition of this strike is the first time that the country has officially acknowledged such an attack since the start of the Syrian civil war. Perhaps more worryingly, this is also the first time that Syrian firepower has been used against Israeli forces. In response to this incident, Lieberman vowed to destroy Syrian air defenses in future clashes: "Next time, if the Syrian aerial defence apparatus acts against our planes, we will destroy it." 

Do the recent clashes point to an escalation between Israel and Hizbullah? The Lebanese militant group is no doubt a major concern for Israel. However, if the Israeli attacks on Friday were directed against weapons transfer convoys from Iran to Hizbullah, the attacks since then seem directed at the Syrian regime. The latest strike in Damascus targeted Syrian army posts in the area. If Israel is now targeting the Assad regime in Syria, not simply Hizbullah, then this represents a significant change in its approach to the conflict.

For more than six years, Israel has managed to stay out of the war in Syria. Events in recent days could mark a dangerous escalation in its approach to the ongoing conflict in the country, despite the desire to keep its distance. Developments over the coming days will better indicate whether the latest clashes mark a new phase in the regional aspects of the Syrian war, or only sporadic spillover from the ongoing fighting in the country.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

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