The Israeli army (IDF) spokesman has not commented on the Syria claim to have shot down an Israeli drone Wednesday, Feb. 20, over the Lebanese village of Deir al-Aachayer in the Rashaya region. But circumstances show that the unmanned plane was ambushed by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile lying in wait for a chance to shoot down an Israeli aircraft as it flew over the Lebanese Beqaa Valley.
Both sides must now decide if this duel will continue.
Syria first shot down a foreign spy plane over its territory on June 22, 2012 when its anti-aircraft missiles, said by some Western intelligence sources to have been operated by Russian crews, downed a Turkish F-4 Phantom surveillance plane flying at low altitude over the Latakia area.
The Turkish pilots tried to evade the missiles by heading back over the Mediterranean, but their crippled aircraft crashed into the sea killing the crew.
To avoid pressure to retaliate, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stuck to his story that the plane was downed over international waters outside Syrian airspace.
Did Russians fire the missile that downed the Israeli drone?
The case of the Israeli drone is different for two reasons:
1. This unmanned Israeli aircraft was flying over Lebanon – not Syria.
2. Syria fired anti-aircraft missiles over Lebanese territory for the first time.
Were Russian personnel involved in shooting down the Israeli drone, as they were in the downing of the Turkish spy plane?
If they were, then Moscow was clearly sending Jerusalem a message: We are now taking responsibility for Syria and you must stop sending your air force over Syria and Lebanon.
This interplay is not generally reported or perceived because the prevailing wisdom is that President Bashar Assad is on its way out and the Syrian rebels are at the gates of Damascus.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources stress once again that this is no more than wishful thinking.
The rebels too have woken up to the realization that, after two years of bitter war, they can no longer dream of beating Assad and his army on the battlefield. Therefore, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, has been able to persuade both sides of the Syrian war to get together in Moscow in the coming weeks to negotiate a ceasefire as the prelude to a political settlement.
This will be the first time in 60 years that the US is not part of a critical diplomatic initiative for the Middle East.
Assad may be advised by Moscow to end Israel’s no-fly zone
In the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, even if Russian officers did not push the button to launch the missile that brought down the Israeli drone, Bashar Assad would not have attacked the Israeli Air force without first consulting with Moscow. It would not be in his interest to affront his Russian backers while they were engaged in a diplomatic effort to achieve the end of the Syrian war by a deal for keeping him in power for another two years at least.
It is now up to Israel to face up to a tough scenario:
a) If Syria or the Russians keep up their fire on its aircraft, the Israeli Air Force has the means to destroy their anti-air missile batteries. But that course may well spark a war of attrition between the IAF and the highly sophisticated Syrian air defense system, some of which is operated by Russian teams.
b) Moscow might then retaliate by bringing all its military might to bear in aid of Assad, possibly supplying him with more advanced weapons systems or even fighter jets able to take on Israeli warplanes.
c). Moscow and Damascus would be likely to share the common objective of ending the no-fly zone the Israeli Air Force has established over the Lebanese-Syrian border in order to prevent the passage of sophisticated Iranian arms from Syria to Hizballah in Lebanon.
This operation was scarcely reported in the west (see debkafile of Feb.4: Assad set on arms transfers to Lebanon. Israel responds with no-fly zone).
d). This escalation would signify a Russian policy – not just to shore up Assad’s regime and keep him in power (until they decide otherwise), but also to strengthen Hizballah and its military domination over Lebanon, especially in the Beqaa region.