I am fairly confident that the recent incident on the Turkish-Syrian border, where Syria alleges it repulsed an Israeli fighter jet from its air space, will not result in military retaliation by Damascus. However, this latest incident might very well be used as a pretext by Syrian proxies in Lebanon and in the territories to attempt some kind of "counter-attack." If successful, such an attack might very well lead to an escalation of Syrian-Israeli tensions.
The incident took place on Thursday at dawn. Only the Turks and Syrians so far have released information based on first-hand observation as well as their own agendas. So far, the Syrians have alleged that the plane dropped munitions on a deserted area, while the Turks have displayed a jettisoned F-15 fuel-tank. Israeli sources have remained silent about the news, and the U.S. has not commented either.
What is the meaning of this report? I think we can safely discard the preposterous web of conjectures spun by Joshua Landis to allege a neo-con, North Korea connection. This is obviously about issues much closer to home. In an earlier post on Thursday, Landis asked, with faux exasperation, "What is this about?" and answered that "One has to believe it is an intentional provocation." This again seems to me off the mark.
I think there are two possible explanations for this incident. The IAF pilot was either engaging in a routine reconnaissance flight over Syria and due to an operational failure strayed into territory covered by the country's anti-aircraft installations, or, more likely, this was an operation designed specifically to test the current state of Syrian anti-air defense. In the latter case, we have to ask whether the IAF's performance can be judged a success. The pilot involved (so far, we know of only one plane, but there were probably others) escaped without harm or damage to the plane but was forced to jettison cargo and munitions, probably to speed up the getaway. On the other hand, given the expectation before the summer that there might be a war between Damascus and Jerusalem, it might have been preferable to avoid detection entirely, or at least to avoid giving Syria concrete proof that an incursion had occurred.
With evidence in hand, Syria is likely to do the most it can in the diplomatic realm to force Arab states to take rhetorical "measures." This could be detrimental to Israeli and American efforts at the upcoming peace conference, and it might serve as a handy diversionary measure by Iran and Syria at the UN. Turkey, too, is in an awkward position, as the Israelis most likely did enter the country's air space. We can expect some grandstanding from them, as they try to appease the Syrians and the Arab states, who will seize the opportunity to condemn Turkey for its collaboration with Israel.
There are some who see this incident as related to American plans for an aerial raid on Iran, or a joint Israeli-American offensive against Syria. I don't think either of these conclusions apply, but there is no doubt that Israel, the U.S., Syria, and Iran are paying especially close attention both to the actual evidence being reported and to the gains they may harvest through the information war in the media and the diplomatic sphere. Turkey, too, is doubtlessly probing carefully what Israel and/or the Americans might be up to.