The Middle East is witnessing very interesting — and I would rather add exciting — times. On 10 February Syrian air defence systems locked in on an attacking American-made F-16 fighter plane of the Israeli air force that was attacking military targets in Syria. The fighter plane crashed and the two pilots survived, albeit one of the two is seriously injured. It was the first time that an Arab — in this case a Syrian one — air defence system supplied by Russia down an Israeli plane in the last 30 years. Times have changed, and dramatically. No longer will the Israelis have complete mastery of Middle Eastern and Arab skies, and no longer will Damascus live with Israeli impunity.
The Israelis falsely claimed that they were exercising their right of self-defence, repeating the same false story, that they were retaliating against an Iranian drone that violated their airspace flying from a base within Syria. Both the Syrians and the Iranians denied the claim.
On the same day of the downing of the Israeli fighter plane, the US State Department issued a statement that almost surprised Middle East watchers by its sheer blind siding with Israel. This statement came one day before US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was due to begin a five-country tour in the Middle East, from 11-16 February, beginning with Egypt and then Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Turkey. The statement reiterated American support for what it termed “Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself”, and then the State Department took on Iran, buying blindly the Israeli version of events, stressing that the United States continues to push back on the “totality of Iran’s malign activities in the region and calls for an end to Iranian behaviour that threatens peace and stability.” It added that “Iran’s calculated escalation of threat, and its ambition to project its power and dominance, place all the people of the region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk.” Meanwhile, Tillerson phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 10 February, to express support for Israel’s right to self-defence.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement warning that the “creation of any threats to the lives and safety of Russian military servicemen currently in Syria on the invitation of its lawful government to help fight terrorists is absolutely unacceptable”.
Two weeks ago, the Israeli prime minister had flown to Moscow and met Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting dealt with Israeli concerns, very exaggerated, over what the Israelis see as the expansion of Iranian military presence in Syria in the future, once the guns fall silent. In addition, the Israelis have been warning, also without providing tangible evidence, that the Iranians have helped Lebanon’s Hizbullah build an underground missile factory in Lebanon. They also brought up the question of Hizbullah receiving “accurate weaponry” from Iran that poses a direct threat to Israel’s security.
After the successful downing of the Israeli F-16 last Saturday, Netanyahu made a phone call to the Russian president in which, according to a video he made, he reiterated the “right and obligation to defend ourselves”. He further pointed out that the two leaders agreed that their military cooperation should continue.
In the last two weeks, the Syrian war theatre has seen the use of surface-to-air missiles to target military planes operating in Syria’s airspace. The first incident was the use by terrorist groups of a shoulder-held missile, most probably an American-made Stinger, to shoot down a Russian bomber, a Sukhoi-25, that was on a mission targeting rebel-held enclaves in northern Syria, in a very serious and dangerous precedent. The Russians are investigating who supplied these types of missiles to rebel groups in Syria, begging the question of whether the US government authorised such a procurement. If so, then, we should see the second incident of the downing of the F-16 as direct retaliation against providing terrorist groups with such advanced missiles. An American-made fighter bomber against a Russian-manufactured bomber.
The recent escalation can’t possibly continue for the stakes are too high for Washington and Moscow. The two superpowers will have to rein in their allies and partners in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Failing that, the region would see the outbreak of a wide regional war that no one could claim control over in its unfolding and repercussions.
The United States, in particular, should try to recalibrate its messages of outright support for Israel, presently under one of the most extreme rightist governments in its history.
The downing of the two planes, one Russian and one American, means that the Syria war is winding down; however, each side wants to claim final victory. It is difficult to see such a prospect realised unless one of the main international backers of regional powers battling in Syria miscalculates dangerously. A détente or a military relaxation, that the world had seen in the early 1970s between president Nixon and president Brezhnev is in order. The problem is that in both Washington and Tel Aviv there are leaders who like to play with fire, threatening the use of force to impose their will. Maybe it would be wiser on their part to reconsider such a reckless attitude. For neither the Russians, nor the Syrians, nor the Iranians, are prepared to cave in.
As far as Egypt’s national security interests are concerned, and taking the long haul in the Middle East into consideration, I believe that the downing of the Israeli fighter by Syrian air defences should be seen as a plus. No regional power should become a hegemon in the Middle East, including Israel.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly