A Tense Engagement Over The Golan

On Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces used two surface-to-air missiles to shoot down a Syrian fighter jet that strayed two kilometers into Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. It is the first time Israel has shot down a manned Syrian aircraft in four years, and comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, as Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad moves to mop up remaining resistance to his regime, and a host of foreign countries with a stake in the conflict push to shore up their interests. Here's Willis Sparks with the rundown on what it all means.


Why did this happen?

Israeli defenses are on high alert at the moment, because Assad’s forces are attacking Syrian rebels in areas near the Israeli border. Assad is close to reestablishing control of territory long held by rebel groups. The Israeli action appears to have been an automatic response to a Syrian jet that got too close.

What might happen next? 

Tensions are high. Syria reacted angrily on Monday after Israel evacuated Syrian volunteers providing humanitarian assistance in rebel-held areas in the face of a Syrian military advance – the so-called White Helmets. Also on Monday, Israel reportedly used its “David's Sling” missile defense system for the first time, in this case in response to two Syrian surface-to-surface missiles fired near Israeli territory.

That said, a major escalation in response to this particular incident is unlikely. Israel understands that Assad has survived Syria’s civil war and will remain in power, but it wants to signal to his victorious forces that they must respect Israeli airspace and defenses now and in the future. The Syrian government will continue to issue complaints and threats, but Syria is fighting rebels, not Israel.

How does this piece fit in the broader puzzle?

This otherwise isolated incident is interesting because it highlights the complex overlapping relationships playing out in a very tight space. A few key facts:

  • The primary threat to Israel comes not from Syrian forces but from Iranian fighters that Assad has invited to set up operations near the Israeli border.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to court the Russian government in hopes of winning an agreement that would sideline Iranian involvement in Syria.

  • Russian forces would like to elbow Iranian forces from Syria to expand its own influence there, but Russia also cares about it relationship with Iran.

  • Tuesday’s incident involved the use of US-made Patriot missiles to shoot down a Russian-made Syrian jet, a reminder that outside powers still have intense interest in this arena of conflict.

Throw in Turkish forces, various Kurdish groups, surviving Syrian rebels, the remnants of ISIS, ambitious Russians, internal Trump administration tensions over relations with Moscow, an increasingly isolated and frustrated Iranian leadership, and some keenly interested Saudis and there is plenty of suspicion, hostility, and weaponry to keep the region on simmer for the foreseeable future.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.