The timing of this incident is rather curious, to say the least. Israel announced today that a single Syrian Su-24 fighter jet crossed over into Israeli airspace over the contested Golan Heights, prompting the IDF to shoot it down with a Patriot battery. This apparently took place while the US and its Arab partners launched air strikes elsewhere in Syria:
The Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet that infiltrated its airspace over the Golan Heights on Tuesday morning — the first such downing in decades, heightening tensions in the volatile plateau.
The military said a “Syrian aircraft infiltrated into Israeli air space” in the morning hours and that the military “intercepted the aircraft in mid-flight, using the Patriot air defense system.”
The military would not say what type of aircraft was downed and said the circumstances of the incident were “unclear.”
A defense official identified the downed aircraft as a Sukhoi Su-24 Russian fighter plane. Previously, it was reported to have been a MiG aircraft. He said the Syrian jet penetrated 2,600 feet into Israeli air space and tried to return to Syria after the Patriot missile was fired.
The Washington Post reports that the pilot may have been trying to attack villages in the region that rebels had seized, but Israel wasn’t going to take any chances:
The Israeli military said that it was investigating the circumstances of Tuesday’s incident. But it did not appear that the Syrian aircraft’s mission was aimed at Israel, but instead at anti-regime rebel forces that last month captured strategic points along the frontier between Israel and Syria.
In a statement, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that the Syrian aircraft had crossed into Israeli airspace and reiterated that Israel would not tolerate any threats to its security.
“We’ve clarified this in the past and we’re emphasizing it again: We won’t allow anybody, whether it’s a state or a terrorist organization, to threaten our security and violate our sovereignty,” he said.
Ram Shmueli, a brigadier general in the Israeli reserves and former head of Israel’s air force intelligence, said that Israel is currently facing a major threat on all of its northern borders.
“We are very much on alert to all types of drones, jets and airplanes, even civilian airlines like those used during 9/11,” said Shmueli, a fighter pilot for more than 35 years. “Although we are not part of this war, we have to keep the borders safe.”
Perhaps Assad thought that he could take a couple of shots at the rebels while everyone else had their eyes turned north. One would think that Assad would have found a way to coordinate that effort with Israel, which has to be a little disconcerted to find Islamists camping out so close to the Golan border, too. On the other hand, how exactly was Assad supposed to coordinate that? Through the US? Fat chance, even if we’re currently bombing the biggest threat to Assad’s power in Syria at the moment. Jordan might have facilitated it, but Jordan has its own issues with Israel and with Assad at the moment too, besides taking part in the fight against ISIS, which might soon be knocking on their door too.
The threat of the rebels in the Golan is certainly real. The UN found that out the hard way last month, and Israel had to close border crossings as a result:
Israel closed off the area around Quneitra on the occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday after an officer was wounded by stray fire as Syrian rebels seized control of the crossing.
The UN peacekeeping force which monitors the armistice line said several mortar rounds struck near its positions as rebel fighters, including some from Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, stormed the crossing in deadly fighting with government troops.
“From what we know, opposition forces overran the Syrian regime forces on the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing, some of those including the Al-Nusra Front, which ultimately leaves the crossing in the opposition forces’ hands,” Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told AFP.
He said there had been “extensive fighting” on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line since early Wednesday including several instances of “errant fire.”
Any Syrian army attempt to take back that ground from Jabhat al-Nusra will raise the temperature on the Israeli side. In the future, Assad had better find ways to work with Israel on security in the Golan, or he may end up losing even more materiel and personnel. We have too many active war fronts in this region as it is.