by Yoav Limor
The Syrian response was probably a test of the strength of the border against Israel
There is no doubt that the anti-aircraft missiles fired at Israeli Air Force aircraft overnight Monday were neither random nor a decision made locally. The launchers that fired them are located near Damascus, and the use of them requires orders from high up, possibly even from Syrian President Bashar Assad himself.
The timeline of the incident leads to a similar conclusion. The missiles were fired a few minutes after the Israeli strike, so as not to endanger the air force aircraft, which were about to land, but not long enough after it to have allowed for a series of consultations and green lights. Thus, we can assume that the people manning the launcher had pre-approval to respond "the next time" Israel were to strike in Syria. Early Tuesday morning just such a strike was carried out, and the launcher fired back.
The Syrian response was probably a test of the strength of the border against Israel. After five and a half years of civil war, in which the Damascus regime has been concerned about keeping itself in power and Israel enjoyed a supposedly free hand to operate in Syria -- which according to foreign news reports has been used to carry out a multitude of airstrikes and operations, for which Israel did not take responsibility -- Assad now feels relatively at ease. The liberation of territory held by the Syrian rebels and the Islamic State group, along with the Russian-American agreement that removed the immediate threat of his being ousted from power, have given Assad enough confidence to send a signal to Israel.
At this state, it's just a small sign that does not indicate that escalation is on the way. Syria, like Israel, has no interest in a war or a violent clash, and it is unlikely to up its responses in the foreseeable future so as to avoid a miscalculation. Assad will direct his efforts toward retaking territory, in the hope of (although the chances are slim) regaining full power over the country.
The mortar strikes on Israeli territory are part of that effort -- the mortars are fired over the rebels on the Syrian Golan and cross the border fence. There were 69 such incidents in 2014. There were 12 in 2015, and as of Tuesday, there were 15 cases of fire at Israel from Syria in 2016. Since Israel's openly declared policy is to not let such incidents pass without response, so as to maintain sovereignty, every such event is much more volatile than either side wants.
In the next incident, Israel and Syria will probably continue to operate in the same framework (on Tuesday evening, the IAF once again carried out strikes on the Syrian Golan), but Assad's continued return to power could also increase his confidence and require Israel to rethink its tactics on the northern border.
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