Escalation in Southern Syria

Has Israel opted for direct military intervention to protect the rebel militias?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Tuesday’s downing by Israeli Patriot missiles of a Syrian SU-22 warplane as it was overflying southern Syria – and the killing of its pilot Maj. Omran Marei – marks a serious turn in the course of the Syrian crisis and constitutes an unprecedented provocation.

The Israeli authorities claim the plane was fired on after it crossed into the airspace over the occupied Golan Heights. But the official Syrian account is that it was shot down while bombing positions held by Islamic State (IS) fighters in the Yarmouk district near the Jordanian border.

It is striking that this escalation comes two days after the Israeli military ‘rescued’ some 400 members and their dependents of the White Helmets organization and transferred them into territory it occupies following a call from US President Donald Trump to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

It seems clear that this escalating Israeli military harassment on the Syrian front is aimed at dragging Syria and its Iranian and other allies into a broad military confrontation. Just two days previously, Israeli missiles targeted a military base near Hama, and news reports said Netanyahu rejected an offer conveyed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for Iranian forces in Syria to withdraw to a distance of 100 kilometres from the Golan.

We do not know whether the downing of the Syrian jet while it was bombing armed opposition groups was part of a new plan to intervene directly in the Syrian crisis to protect these factions, or a warning to the Syrian armed forces not to come near to the occupied plateau.

Moscow did not immediately react to the downing of the Russian-made jet, a criminal provocation that deals a personal affront to President Vladimir Putin and trashes all his efforts to prevent a confrontation in southern Syrian between his Syrian and Israeli ‘allies’.

The tension in southern Syria is entering a new period of escalation, and we do not believe the shooting down of the Syrian warplane was a one-off incident. Rather, it comes in the context of an evolving new Israeli policy, one entailing direct military intervention in the Syrian crisis to safeguard the armed groups that have maintained calm on this southern frontline for seven years, and did not fire a single shot at Israeli occupation forces on the other side.