‘Russia Is No Match for Israel’s Air Power in Syria’
Russia's S-400 air defense system in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry)

‘Russia Is No Match for Israel’s Air Power in Syria’

The Jewish state’s freedom of action over Damascus will only increase, expert says

Four Syrian soldiers were killed, and three others were wounded, in an Israeli missile attack on several positions of regime forces in Damascus early on Wednesday, the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Most of the missiles were thwarted by Syrian air defense systems but the attack also caused material damage, according to the report.

Israeli military only said: “We don’t comment on foreign reports.”

Nighttime strikes from unidentified aircraft have become routine around Damascus and other parts of Syria in recent years. The Syrian statement of casualties, while not unprecedented, is considered unusual.

The main party deterring Israel from being more aggressive in Syria used to be Russia. But this might be changing.

Russian military bases have spread across Syria since 2015 when President Vladimir Putin intervened to save the Assad regime from losing the country’s civil war. While Russian air defense systems are in use in some parts of the country, Israel continues to enjoy a large degree of freedom of action in Syrian skies.

“Russia is no match for Israel’s air superiority,” says Zvi Magen, head of the Russia research program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a former Israeli intelligence officer.

“Russia is deterred by Israel in Syria, and its military forces are not a factor for the IAF [Israel Air Force]. If anything, there is a match in interests when it comes to Iran, against whom Russia is fighting for control in Syria,” he adds,

Magen, who was born in Siberia to a father who served in the Red Army in WWII and a mother from Poland who survived the Holocaust, is a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow.

Describing Russia’s interests in Syria, he says, “First of all, it’s about access to the Middle East in general. Russia aspires to be a significant force in the region. Second, the Russian naval facility in Tartus is Russia’s entry to the Mediterranean Sea. I can’t see it risking those interests just to limit Israel’s freedom of action.”

While the alleged Israeli attack is a message to the Syrian government, it could also be directed toward Russia, following the Kremlin’s recent change of tone toward Israel, he says.

“Russia became very critical of Israel lately, and it’s not completely clear why. It most likely has to do with the war in Ukraine. But this attack could be a message, making it clear that Israel will not change its policy in Syria,” Magen explains.

Jerusalem has acknowledged attacks on Iranian forces in Syria, trying to prevent the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from establishing a military footprint near Israel’s northern border. Former IAF chief Maj. Gen (res.) Amir Eshel explained in an interview in 2019 that Israel’s main goal in these attacks was to prevent the IRGC from delivering high precision weapons to Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hizbullah. The Shiite militia is also active in the Syrian civil war, fighting on the side of the Assad regime.

“Russia is a relatively stable party when it comes to Syria,” Prof. Eyal Zisser, vice dean of Tel Aviv University and an expert on Syria, told The Media Line. “They have enough things to gain from Israeli attack there, so it’s hard for me to see them trying to confront Israel about it. And even if they wanted to, the military force they’re holding there is just too small.”

“The real unpredictable party is Iran. Eventually, that is who Israel is fighting on Syrian soil,” Zisser says. “Tehran could decide to stop containing Israeli strikes on their bases at some point, and then the rules of the game could change. It’s not particularly likely, but you ask me what can change the reality of Israel regularly attacking military bases in Syria, it’s this: a retaliation coming from the IRGC. The Syrian government may decide to retaliate at some point, but I just don’t see it happening soon.”

“The casualties are a little unusual, but I don’t think they reflect an intended change in Israeli policy,” says Dr. Carmit Valensi, manager of the Syria research program at INSS, in an interview with The Media Line.

“We have been monitoring attacks in Syria for a few years now, and at least when it comes to frequency, this attack is more of the same. I doubt anyone in Israel decided to intentionally kill Syrian soldiers. Israel’s goal has been and remains to thwart shipments of technology that is supposed to make Hizbullah’s old rockets more accurate. Casualties are collateral damage,” she explains.

Valensi also agrees with Magen about Russian interests in Syria.

“Russia’s policy in Syria includes two goals: stabilizing Syria and preventing Iran from becoming too dominant in it. Good relations with Israel are key for both goals,” she says.

“We have yet to see any major changes in Russia’s actions in Syria. There are some reports regarding minimizing the military actions, but it’s still a little early to assess if it’s serious. The bottom line is that Israel still has freedom of action in Syria, and it’s hard to believe it’ll change,” Valensi says.

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