Monday Briefing: The Syrian-Iranian downing of an Israeli fighter jet

In this week's Monday Briefing, MEI experts Charles Lister, Bilal Y. Saab, Eran Etzion, Gonul Tol, Paul Salem, and Randa Slim provide analysis on recent and upcoming events including the Syrian-Iranian downing of an Israeli fighter jet, the critical crossroads of U.S. and Turkey relations, Rex Tillerson's upcoming visit to Lebanon, and Iraqi reconstruction plans.

Syrian air defense takes a hard blow
Charles Lister, Senior Fellow

The downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet over the weekend appears to have been part of a pre-planned “bait and trap” operation by the Assad regime and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The use of a comparatively disposable Iranian drone as bait to lure in an Israeli response was met with an unusually large wave of at least 24 surface-to-air missiles, which singled out the one downed F-16.

The shooting down of an Israeli jet in a joint Syrian-Iranian attack was a major escalation, but Israel’s response was arguably even more significant. In the biggest air operation since 1982, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) launched a series of coordinated strikes against the regime’s elite 4th Mechanized Division outside of Damascus; against a number of IRGC command posts; and against the strategically vital Tiyas air base in Homs province. According to IAF officials, roughly 50 percent of Syria’s entire air defense network was destroyed, dealing a catastrophic blow to the regime’s already limited ability to defend itself from air attack.

IAF officials have also since revealed that “thousands of missions” have been conducted over Syria in 2017 alone. That reality would have been a great embarrassment to the Assad regime and may well have been the catalyst for the weekend’s “bait and trap” operation. Though regime circles may have celebrated their small victory, it only masked the crippling defeat subsequently brought down by the IAF.    

The scale and effect of Israel’s response underlines two things. First, previous risk-based arguments against more significant air assaults on the regime or the establishment of no-fly zones were clearly bogus. Second, the regime has now effectively lost its own independent air defense network and is now totally reliant on Russia—a country that has consistently not interceded against either the U.S. or Israel. Ironically, then, this has weakened Assad’s hand, not strengthened it.

A game of chicken in Syria
Bilal Y. Saab, Director of the Defense and Security Program

The downing of an Israeli fighter jet this weekend over Syrian skies by Syrian air defenses is not exactly a model of military efficiency—reports suggest that around 20 surface-to-air missiles were fired to shoot down that plane. But it was more than the Iranians needed to achieve a strategic purpose: to signal to the Israelis the new rules of the game in Syria. The question now is: will this affect Israel’s behavior?

This depends on how strict Israel’s red lines in Syria are. Part of the problem is that those red lines are not as clear as they should be. Another problem is that either these red lines are poorly communicated—it looks like occasional Israeli airstrikes are not cutting it—or the Iranians are hearing just fine but choosing to ignore the signals. None of this is good.

Although details of this incident are still emerging, we do know some that should cause worry. The Syrians were determined to down that Israeli plane. Not even during the June 1982 Syrian-Israeli clashes over the skies of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley did the Syrians fire at a single target in such a concentrated fashion. Yes, the circumstances were different then and Syrian SAM batteries had to engage roughly 90 Israeli aircraft, but the point here is that Syria and Iran’s willingness to absorb a military price in return for a potential strategic gain is clear.

The game of chicken between Iran and Israel in Syria has just started. The biggest danger is that American diplomacy is absent.

Israel and Iran cross swords for the first time
Eran Etzion, MEI Scholar

Israel and Iran have been conducting a clandestine and proxy war for decades, but last week marked the first direct confrontation between them, taking place on Israeli and Syrian soil. It included the downing of an Israeli fighter jet, the first in 36 years.

The two regional powers’ real operational considerations are not altogether clear. In parallel to the brief combat, a battle of words, images and narratives raged. Israel blamed Iran for “infringing on Israeli sovereignty,” while Iran denied any direct involvement and warned against “Zionist expansionism.” The U.S. was, predictably, missing in action, and the Russians, with their soldiers present at the very air base from which the Iranian drone was launched, were too close for comfort.

In the bigger scheme of things, Iran and Israel are competing for regional Influence, the former using its historic position as the leader of the Shiites, and its newfound role as a Russian ally in Syria. Israel, still using its historic posture as an American proxy—a devalued currency in the Syrian arena—is also trying to position itself in its newfound role of ally to the Sunnis.

However, the stated Israeli goal of “preventing Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria” seems unachievable, certainly without massive U.S. intervention. With Putin firmly in the Syrian driver seat, the probable outcome is a “Pax Russiana.” The question is how much more sword-crossing, air raids and proxy battles will be deemed necessary.

No progress in US-Turkey talks
Gonul Tol, Director for Turkish Studies

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster met with his Turkish counterpart in Istanbul last week to discuss the mounting problems in U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties. It will be followed by a visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later this week.

The flurry of diplomatic activity comes amid growing tensions between the two countries over U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Tensions spiked last month after Turkey launched a military incursion into the northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin against Kurdish forces. There are no U.S. troops in Afrin but Turkey threatened to move into Manbij, a separate Kurdish enclave east of Afrin where there are around 2,000 U.S. Army Special Forces. If President Recep Tayyip Erdogan follows through, the move could potentially bring Turkish forces into confrontation with those of the United States.

Washington is trying hard to prevent a Turkish incursion into Manbij but it faces tough choices. Turkey demands withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Manbij. If the U.S. agrees, it could threaten its plans to stabilize a swath of northeast Syria. A compromise solution would be restructuring the umbrella group that runs the town so that the Arab forces are more visibly in charge. That could provide a face-saving exit for Erdogan, who has publicly been threatening a Manbij operation.

The first sign that the two sides are not close to an agreement came after McMaster’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart. After the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey-U.S. relations were at a critical point: they would either be fixed or be completely damaged. Tillerson is sure to face tough talks in Turkey this week.

Tillerson’s timely trip to Lebanon
Paul Salem, Senior Vice President for Policy Research and Programs

Aside from the recent dust-up across the Israel-Syria border, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s planned trip to Beirut this week comes as some voices in Israel, the U.S. and parts of the Gulf have been beating the drums of war with regard to Lebanon. Tillerson’s visit reaffirms that the Lebanese state and army are key partners in the war on terror and in maintaining rare stability in a very dangerous part of the Middle East.

Tillerson will address tensions that have emerged between Israel and Lebanon over a Lebanese offshore gas block that juts into disputed maritime waters and over a proposed Israeli border wall whose trajectory Lebanon vociferously objects to.

Tillerson will be visiting as Lebanon heads toward parliamentary elections scheduled for May 6. Bellicose voices are eyeing those elections, and if the old March 8 coalition parties secure a majority, they are preparing to declare the Lebanese state totally “lost to Hezbollah” and thus fair game for crippling economic or military action.

But that is a dangerous and willful misunderstanding. The parliamentary elections will not greatly impact or alter the status quo, nor do the March 8 and March 14 coalitions still exist as they once were. Whatever the slight shifts in parliament that the elections might bring, governance in Lebanon will remain a three-way power-sharing arrangement between the Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, Hariri’s Future Movement and the Hezbollah-Amal alliance. A slim parliamentary majority for one shifting coalition or another will not alter that. The arrangement might not be ideal, but it is better than another open-ended regional war, a new civil war and/or another failed state in the region.

Iraq reconstruction conference begins in Kuwait
Randa Slim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues

A conference for the reconstruction of Iraq was launched today in Kuwait. According to the Iraqi planning minister, Iraq’s reconstruction price tag is $88 billion, with housing an urgent priority. There is less emphasis on donor countries making pledges, and more focus on the private sector taking the lead in long-term investments in infrastructure projects, especially in the electricity, gas and water sectors.

Baghdad wants governments attending the conference, particularly regional powerhouses, to act as guarantors of soft loans the government of Iraq can use to fund infrastructure projects and to incentivize their private sectors to invest in Iraq. Baghdad’s objective is to get regional powerhouses to develop a stake in the future and long-term stability of Iraq. It sees business-to-business relations playing an important role in changing the negative attitudes that have existed to date in the Gulf region vis-a-vis Iraq.  

Security, red tape and corruption have plagued Iraq’s investment climate. Changes to the regulatory framework are necessary to ease legal obstacles facing foreign investors in Iraq. Most of the country’s laws were written before 2003, and the implementation regulations are lacking. Reform of the judiciary, establishing a one-stop shop for foreign investors to cut red tape, and decentralization will be important aspects of reconstruction in Iraq.  

Beyond physical reconstruction, the Iraqi economy needs to be transformed. A 20-person Iraqi mission is developing a Vision 2030 plan which will provide a new economic narrative for the country. According to government officials, Iraq with business-as-usual levels of growth could reach a GDP of $420 billion by 2030, but with improved governance it could reach $700 billion.

Abbas goes to Moscow
Yousef Munayyer, Non-resident Scholar

Yousef Munayyer


Today, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas visits Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This trip to Moscow is the product of several trends. First and foremost, it is a Palestinian response to what is seen as an American abdication of its former role as a mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in which it maintained a set of underlying principles that included the goal of an independent Palestinian state as well as the impression of neutrality on core issues including Jerusalem.

Second, this trip should be seen as a reflection of Russia’s growing relevance in the region, which is most clear in its role in Syria’s war, a conflict that has significant regional dimensions. Third, the approach to Moscow is perhaps motivated by what appears to be a friendly relationship between Putin and President Trump and the belief that Moscow may have more influence during this American administration than in previous ones.

Abbas’ goal in going to Moscow is to get the Russians to support a more internationalized peace process that does not necessarily exclude Washington but limits U.S. monopoly over it by including other players. As we have seen with the Middle East quartet, however, the inclusion of players like Russia, the European Union and the United Nations alongside Washington did not prevent Washington from steering the process. It is more likely that this effort by Abbas and other diplomatic efforts he will make in the coming weeks are attempts to appear relevant despite the fact that the political program he has staked his career on no longer is.