Why Did Israeli Planes Enter Syria?

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David Silverman / Getty

An Israeli Army Merkeva tank in the Golan Heights on September 7, 2007.

A mysterious incident involving Israeli jets over northern Syria last week has revived fears of war between Israel and Syria, just as months of tension between the bitter foes had appeared to be subsiding. The Israeli government is maintaining a rigid — and uncharacteristic —silence over the affair, which has drawn threats of retaliation from Damascus and a vow to take the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Speculation is rife, but facts elusive, over why Israeli warplanes were over above the arid plains of northern Syria early Thursday. Syria's official news agency last week quoted a Syrian military official saying that Israeli jets had entered Syrian airspace from the Mediterranean, and broke the sound barrier before coming under fire from air defenses. The Israelis, according to this account, had "dropped munitions" over deserted areas before departing. The report did not specify whether the Israelis had bombed any targets. The following day, fuel tanks were discovered inside Turkey near the Syrian border. Other jettisoned tanks were reportedly found inside Syria.

"They dropped bombs over Syria and they dropped fuel tanks on Syrian soil," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in Ankara Monday, while briefing Turkish officials on the incident. Turkey, which has strong military and diplomatic ties to Israel, described the overflights as "unacceptable," and has demanded an explanation from the Israeli government.

The Syrians are suggesting that Israel had, albeit discreetly, moved preemptively to reassure Damascus of its intentions before the incident. Muallem told European ambassadors in Damascus at the weekend that last Wednesday — the day before the incursion — he had received a "calming message" from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, sent via a top EU official, according to the Arabic Al-Hayat newspaper. Israeli officials have lately sought to defuse tensions by making clear Israel has no plan to attack Syria and reducing troop numbers near the border. But Muallem told the diplomats that Olmert's message was a "preparation for the penetration of planes into Syrian skies, just hours later," Al-Hayat reported. Israeli aircraft routinely breach Lebanese airspace, in defiance of U.N. resolutions, mainly to monitor the activities of Hizballah, and on rare occasions, usually connected to tensions in Lebanon or the Palestinian territories, they have also entered Syrian skies.

But northern Syria is a long way from the traditional Arab-Israeli front line, suggesting that the mission was of sufficient importance to endanger air crews and risk a serious escalation of tensions with Damascus. Mohammed Raad, a senior Hizballah official, suggested that the overflight was an attempt to "identify an aggressive aerial passage" for an air strike against Iran. Analysts long have pondered the potential flight routes Israeli bombers would take in the event of a decision to target Iran's nuclear sites. Given the limitations of aircraft range, one option would be to fly directly across Jordan and/or Saudi Arabia and through U.S.-patrolled Iraqi skies. Neither the Saudis or the Jordanians would shed tears if Iran's nuclear capability were destroyed in an air strike, but they could not afford to be seen as having granted the Israelis safe passage though their skies.

An alternative would be to follow the Turkish-Syrian border eastward to Iraqi Kurdistan, and then on to Iran. According to John Pike of globalsecurity.org, the many technical and political factors in play make it difficult to predict which route the Israelis might choose. "At this level of technical detail, one starts to get thinking about what sort of weapons would be carried, and what sort of drag this imposes and how that affects combat range," Pike told TIME.

Even if it were not related to a bombing route, the purpose of Israel's unusual air mission last week may yet be related to Iran. In August, Syria reportedly received from Russia the first batch of 50 Pantsyr S1E short-range air defense systems, part of an alleged sale worth almost $1 billion. The deal is said to have been financed by Iran, which reportedly will receive from Syria some of the Pantsyr units and deploy them to protect its nuclear facilities. The recently developed Pantsyr, which its Russian manufacturers claim is immune to jamming, includes surface-to-air missiles and 30mm Gatling guns, providing complete defensive coverage for a range of 11 to 12 miles and 6 miles in altitude. Pantsyr batteries could pose a serious challenge to either an Israeli or a U.S. air strike on Iran. So were the Israeli aircraft playing a perilous game of chicken to assess the capabilities of the Pantsyr system in response to their countermeasures? Some in Syria believe so.

"There seems to be a consensus here that the Israelis were testing Syrian air defense systems," Andrew Tabler, Damascus-based editor of Syria Today, told TIME.

Whatever their purpose, the overflights appear to have dashed hopes of cooling Israeli-Syrian tensions. Having absorbed the lessons of Israel's failure to crush Hizballah during last summer's month-long war, Syria has been building up its military capabilities in recent months, purchasing advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Veteran Hizballah instructors have been helping train crack Syrian commando units in guerrilla warfare, according to Lebanese intelligence sources. Syria's growing military confidence has been further bolstered by defense agreements with Iran. Some Israelis worry that Syria, sidelined by the U.S. and Washington's Arab allies in regional peacemaking efforts, could launch a lightning strike against Israel in order to push to the top of the diplomatic agenda its ongoing quest to recover territory captured by Israel in 1967.

Hizballah, meanwhile, has spent the past year frenetically restocking its war-depleted arsenal, preparing new lines of defense and recruiting and training hundreds of eager volunteers in anticipation of a second round with Israel. Commentators in Lebanon and Syria believe that Israel's need to restore its battered military deterrence has heightened the prospect of an attack on Syria. Writing in Monday's Syrian state-run Tishreen newspaper, Ezzieddine Darwish said that the Israeli government is seeking to provoke a war with Syria to "wash away the shame of Israel's defeat in Lebanon". Indeed, many Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis are no longer asking if a war will happen, only when and how.