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Untying the knot of the Israeli attack on Syria

Untying the knot of the Israeli attack on Syria
From Al Jazeera - February 12, 2018

Recent developments in Syria remind us how convoluted the country's multi party conflict is. The Syrian regime used a Russian made S-200 anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down an American made F-16Iretaliating to the intrusion ofan Iranian made unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Most importantly, however, these developments gave Israel a reality check that it has no allies in this tug of war next door.

While the exchange of fire was described as unprecedented, it was not an unusual pattern. Hezbollah has beenflying drones over Israel since 2012 and Israel has been repeatedly targeting both the Syrian regime and the Iranian arms shipment to the Lebanese group. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow on January 29 and his cabinet met in the Golan Heights on February 7, which were indications that Israel was considering air attacks. What's unique though about the latest confrontation is the Syrian regime's retaliation and its accidental ability to incapacitate the Israeli F-16, which raised questions whether new rules of engagement are being set. The short answer is no, here's why.

The dynamics that set the context of these air attacks persist. Israel remains the leading opposition against the US-Russian agreementin Syria reached last July. These air attacks were a message to Washington and Moscow as much as they were to Iran. It is also increasingly obvious that Israel goes to Moscow, not Washington, on all issues related to Syria, including when launching air attacks. Israel can often push the envelope but will not risk a political clash in Syria with both the US and Russia.

The fact is the US and Israeli interests are not aligned in Syria since 2014, when former President Barack Obama Administration decided to coexist with Iran in parallel battles against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon, under President Donald Trump, maintained this tacit understanding and reaffirmed the top priority of protecting US troops and long-term interests in northern Syria. In return, Israel's top priority is to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria and a supply line to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Russia remains until further notice the kingmaker in Syria. While Iran and Israel are trading threats, we are not entering a "new strategic era", as Hezbollah has claimed. There is no deterrence between an Iranian made drone and an American made F-16, both in the Syrian air with Russian consent. In November 2016, Russia has repaired the Syrian S-200 to operational status, which practically means that no missile can likely be launched without prior knowledge from Moscow, most notably if the target was Israel. Russia's latest intricate balance between allowing Israel to launch air attacks and the Syrian regime to respond is a dangerous game that solidifies Moscow's powerbroker status.

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