Israel Attacks Syria?

September 7, 2007 at 8:23 am Leave a comment

We first heard the news yesterday afternoon. William listens to BBC radio when he can find it, and around 2:00 he told me that Israeli jets had flown over Syrian airspace and the Syrians had fired on them. I assumed they had strayed over their common border inadvertently.

When we checked the BBC web site, it became clear that this wasn’t about an Israeli jet meandering a bit off course. The Israeli jet flew over Tall al-Abyad, near Raqqa, a part of Syria almost as far away as it could be. That made the BBC headline even more surprising. “Syria ‘fires on Israel warplanes’” suggests that Syria had taken action against an inactive Israel. The BBC story paraphrased Syrian sources that an IDF jet had broken the sound barrier flying over a small, northern Syrian town at 1 in the morning, been shot at by Syrian air defenses, forcing them to “drop ammunition over deserted areas and turn back.” (Drop ammunition over deserted areas? Does that mean bombing them?)


The Syrian TV news last night was full of analysts and analyses, speculating why the Israelis would violate Syrian airspace. One retired general thought Israel was testing to see how Syria would respond, whether the country had the political will or military capability to reply to an Israeli provocation.

I was curious about how other TV news stations would cover the story. Mostly, they didn’t. The BBC spent the first large segment of its news broadcast reviewing the history and talent of Pavarotti, then went into a long discussion of the Chinese traveling exhibition currently at the British Museum. CNN made a brief mention of the Israeli flight, but went on to focus briefly on Pavarotti and then on a missing girl.

Before writing this post this morning, I thought I should see how the New York Times covered the story. “Israel is Officially Silent on Syrian Report It Entered Airspace,” reads the headline over one of the most common images in Syria, a photo of Syrian President Assad on a car’s rear window. The article begins with Syrian “reports” of the Israeli action, then continues with Israeli refusal to discuss it. The story includes Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s response to a journalist, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” NYT seems to challenge the credibility of the “report” by pointing out that it only emerged 12 hours after the incident. The article then describes efforts to calm tensions and ends with Israeli attacks on “militants” in Gaza.

Needless to say, I was surprised that the event hadn’t taken place. I checked Al Jazeera’s site, where the headline read “Israel ‘violates Syrian airspace.’” After repeating Syria’s claims, Al Jazeera continued, “’This event never happened,’ Israeli radio said, quoting an unidentified military spokesman.” The BBC’s analysis, posted two hours after the report on the incident, refers to it as an “alleged” event.

Reuters provided more context to the denial: “The Israeli military spokesman’s office said in a statement: ‘It is not our custom to respond to these kinds of reports.’ The office has typically commented on such reports, but a security source said the government had imposed a news blackout on the issue. A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also said there would be no comment beyond the military statement. The White House also declined comment.”

There may or may not have been an Israeli incursion into Syrian air space in the small hours of Thursday morning? (Or, as William suggests, it may have happened actually but not officially.) Why would the Syrians make up such a claim? Why would the Israelis refuse to acknowledge it? What would Israel’s intentions be in flying over northern Syria? Did they actually “discharge ammunition” in a hurry after being fired on by Syrian defenses, or bomb a specific target, or check out air defenses? Each of the news reports relies on different historical contexts to analyze the event–-or non-event–the information chosen and emphasized by each report suggesting varying conclusions about its implications for war, negotiations, or escalating tensions in the area.

Entry filed under: Israel, Syria.

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