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Plot Thickens For Israel In Syria As Russia Outs Military Operation
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attend a joint press conference after their meeting at Putin's residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. (Photo: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Plot Thickens For Israel In Syria As Russia Outs Military Operation

Angry reaction to strike on Iranian military base raises the possibility that Moscow may clamp down on Israel’s freedom of action in Syria

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly emphasized the importance of strategic ties forged with Russia, the power-broker in Syria since intervening militarily there in September 2015. To this end, the premier has on numerous occasions made shotgun trips to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin in order to press Jerusalem’s positions, in particular seeking to thwart the transfer of advanced weaponry delivered from Iran to Damascus and on to Tehran’s Beirut-based terror proxy Hizbullah. And more recently, to prevent Iran from gaining a permanent military foothold within striking distance of Israel’s border.

To date, the results speak for themselves, with Russia essentially giving Jerusalem free rein to conduct well over one hundred operations targeting Assad regime and Iranian assets during the past two years. More specifically, since November, Israel reportedly targeted at least four Iranian facilities in Syria including a well-publicized strike on a structure in Al-Kiswah, where Tehran is believed to be building an arms depot. Additionally, Israeli jets allegedly struck positions in Hisya, near Homs; Jamariya, located west of Damascus; and Masyaf.

Nevertheless, there are signs that Russia’s tolerance may be waning, as evidenced by the increasingly severe responses to Israeli incursions as well as aggressive unilateral moves by the Jewish state’s enemies. A case in point is February’s flare-up in the north following the penetration of Israeli air space by an Iranian drone launched by the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard. In retaliation, the Israel Air Force hit a dozen sites in Syria, destroying up to half of the country’s air defense systems, before for the first time in three decades an Israeli jet was downed by a barrage of missiles.

On Monday, Moscow appeared to take things to the next level by openly accusing Israel of bombing the Tiyas (T-4) air base, located near Palmyra, an attack carried out overnight that reportedly killed 14 people, among them Iranian officers. Notably, the IAF in February targeted the same facility, where Tehran is thought to have developed and operated drones, including the one used to breach Israeli territory.

Moreover, the state-run Interfax news agency claimed that Russian air defense systems were used to intercept five of the eight missiles fired by the two Israeli jets at the T-4 base. For good measure, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the incident as a “dangerous development,” before his ministry reinforced Russia’s displeasure by slamming Israel, belatedly, for its “indiscriminate and unacceptable” use of force against Palestinians during clashes over the past two weeks along the Gaza Strip border.

That Russia may have actively participated in neutralizing an Israeli assault and then publicly outed Jerusalem marks a potential turning point in its approach to the Jewish state’s limited involvement in the Syrian war, suggesting that Moscow is perhaps no longer willing to countenance Israeli cross-border military operations.

“The picture is not fully clearly yet,” Professor Efraim Inbar, President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, explained to The Media Line. “We need to see what the future responses of the Russians will be and then assess whether there has been a change in Putin’s general attitude towards Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.”

Even if there is a shift in Russian policy, Prof. Inbar maintains it will have little impact on Jerusalem’s calculus. “I think [the government] is quite determined to maintain its red lines. Of course, we have to remember that despite its great military might Israel is a small state that must take into consideration other international actors. But generally, Israel is inclined to pursue its national interests in its immediate region.”

In this respect, Prof. Inbar highlighted Operation Rimon 20, the code name for a battle in July 1970 which pitted the IAF directly against Soviet fighter pilots stationed in Egypt. During the three-minute engagement, Israeli jets downed five MiG-21s, a result that many historians view as having contributed to ending the three-year War of Attrition, a tumultuous period in the aftermath of the major conflict in 1967.

“In the past Israel was willing to not only oppose the Russians but also to use force against them,” he concluded. “When it comes to our national security we are entitled to do what is necessary to uphold it.”

Notably, the Israeli mission follows the publicly stated intention of U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw American troops from Syria “very soon,” a move that many analysts warn could lead to the re-emergence of the Islamic State as well as empower both the Islamic Republic and Russia. As such, it is worthwhile mentioning that U.S. officials confirmed that Jerusalem notified Washington ahead of the strike on the T-4 air base, whereas the Kremlin claims it was left in the dark, which could account for Moscow’s ire.

“I don’t think that much is going to change, though, as Israel has made clear that it is committed to its red lines in Syria and there is a de-confliction mechanism with the Russians to make sure that there are no [accidental] confrontations,” Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and currently a Senior Researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line.

“But this shows why Israel is so concerned about the possibility of the Americans leaving, because it is afraid that the Iranians could take advantage to double up their efforts to establish a presence in Syria especially by taking over the southern flank of the Euphrates River, thereby creating a land corridor between Iran and Lebanon.”

Dr. Nir Boms, a Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, believes that while Russia’s response to the Israeli strike points to a modicum of friction, the situation falls short of a crisis. “Assuming the Russians identified the planes and did not shoot them down suggests that the coordination mechanism still works,” he posited to The Media Line. “The angry response from Moscow may simply be a way for it to reaffirm [its status as] the only power in Syria which calls the shots.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Boms underscored the gap between what Russia may be willing to accept from Iran in Syria and Jerusalem’s red lines. “Russia has its own interests in Syria and some of them do not overlap with Israel’s. The divergence has to do with Iran. Broadly speaking, Moscow does not want Tehran to gain too much control because that is what it wants to do. However, what the Russians are willing to tolerate is different from what the Israelis are willing to tolerate.

“At the same time,” he expounded, “the Russians are making promises to the Iranians and it could be that Israel may at times violate such agreements, which could require Moscow to [lash out] to maintain its good standing with Tehran.”

Although the latest events may be a classic example of a disagreement between “friends,” Moscow’s heated response must nevertheless raise a red flag over Jerusalem’s red lines. Moving forward, should the U.S. indeed withdraw militarily from Syria, the Jewish state will be even more dependent on Russia to curb Iranian influence to its north; that is, unless Israel goes it alone, as it has proven willing to do when its security is threatened.

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