Quarterly Updates for (16 Nov 2017 — 15 Feb 2018)

Ongoing Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war stoked tensions with Israel, testing the uneasy cease-fire in southern Syria that the United States and Russia brokered in the summer of 2017 (see JPS 47 [1] and [2]). Israeli jets flew into Syrian air space to conduct air strikes on Syrian government, Hezbollah, or Iranian military sites at a rate of approximately one per week (see Chronology). Occasionally these sorties were regarded as retaliation for rocket fire into northern Israel (e.g., 12/3–4), but more frequently they were unprovoked attacks. After one such strike on 1/9, Netanyahu explained, “We have a longstanding policy to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Syrian territory. This policy has not changed. We back it up, if necessary, with action.”

The Israeli destabilization campaign climaxed this quarter in a dramatic exchange of violence on 2/10. In the morning, an IDF helicopter destroyed a drone that had allegedly flown into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights (Iranian officials denied any connection to the drone, and the Syrian government said the drone never crossed the border). The Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out a number of air strikes on a Syrian air base near Palmyra, where the drone allegedly originated, causing unspecified damage and injuries. During the attack, Syrian air defense systems shot down an Israeli F-16, seriously injuring the pilot. The IAF then carried out the “biggest and most significant attack . . . against Syrian air defenses” since 1982, according to a senior IAF official. Israeli jets struck twelve Syrian and Iranian targets in southern Syria, killing at least 6 people and causing extensive damage. “We are willing, prepared and capable to exact a heavy price from anyone that attacks us,” said an IDF spokesperson later in the day. “However we are not looking to escalate the situation.”

Following the exchange, Israel’s UN ambassador Danny Danon called for the UNSC to “put an end to Iranian provocations,” and UN secretary-general António Guterres called for an immediate de-escalation. There was no further escalation of violence through the end of the quarter, and Israeli concerns shifted west to southern Lebanon (see “Lebanon” below).