Can Israel Continue with Secret Attacks Inside Syria? Even with Russia’s Growing Presence?

[This post is based on an article written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, for the website Middle East Eye, after an attack on a military airfield near Syria’s capital, Damascus.  As usual, Israel did not confirm that its forces carried out the attack.  It was believed to be aimed at preventing transfer of advanced arms to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim militia in Lebanon that is controlled by Iran and closely allied with Syria’s Assad regime.]

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a meeting of European Union envoys that his country was “trying to prevent the smuggling of sophisticated weapons, military equipment and weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hezbollah.”

public CIA map of Syria

public CIA map of Syria

A strike against President Bashar Assad’s military can be indirectly perceived as an assault or humiliation of Russia, which is behind the regime. Indeed, it was reported that after the attack Russia asked Israel for a clarification of what it was up to.

Soon after Russia deployed its forces in Syria in spring-summer 2015, Israel was nervous and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to Moscow to appease Putin.

In the meeting and, in subsequent ones, the two sides established a special red line link for “deconflicting”, to avoid unintended clashes between the two sides.

Since then, Netanyahu has travelled three more times in the past year to Moscow for further talks with Putin. Subsequently, senior IDF and IAF officers met with their Russian counterparts to define the rules of the game over Syrian airspace.

Despite these arrangements, it is very unlikely that Israel informed Russia ahead of attacks on November 28 and December 7. Nations don’t do that, even with their friends, because it may very well jeopardise an operation and risk lives.

Bearing these circumstances and complications in mind, one has to reach the conclusion that the targets attacked inside Syria were very important to Israel and worth risking the ramifications.

One can also assume that the intelligence was excellent and that there was operational feasibility. Another conclusion which can be drawn from the incidents is that maybe Israel developed such sophisticated measures that its planes were not detected or even “blinded” by the Russian radars.

In the past, Netanyahu, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and his successor Avigdor Lieberman have repeatedly said that Israel has no intentions of getting involved in the civil war, but would religiously defend its national interests.

They include retaliation for, intentional or not, every violation of Israeli sovereignty and prevention of shipments of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel is mainly concerned about the Yakhont land-sea cruise missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and radars and components which will increase the accuracy of Hezbollah ground-to-ground missiles, capable of hitting almost every strategic or military site in Israel including the nuclear reactor in Dimona, IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, power stations and air fields.

Most probably these were the targets in the last Israeli strike in Syria, with the additional fine tuning by Lieberman that Israel is also concerned about transfers of weapons of mass destruction to Hezbollah.

It is, however, important to stress that Israel is also very careful to keep from violating Lebanese sovereignty. In the past – after an IAF strike on Lebanese soil – Hezbollah has threatened to retaliate. For the Shia Lebanese movement, Israeli strikes on Syrian soil are tolerable, but not in Lebanon.

The Assad regime promised in the past to retaliate for the violation by Israel of its airspace and sovereignty. But IDF strategists and planners know that these are empty threats. Assad can’t allow himself – and is actually incapable – of opening another front, especially one with the mighty Israeli military.

But they also know that there is a limit to what they can inflict upon Damascus. Not because of Assad but because of his patron – Putin.

There are two possibilities to explain the increased number of Israeli attacks in the last two weeks. One is that Israel is brazenly challenging Russia and playing a game of chicken with Putin.

But given Lieberman’s comments about WMD, it is more likely that Russia is playing a double game. It defends the Assad regime, but also understands the vital Israeli national interests and turns a blind eye when Israel takes action to defends these interests.

The operational military freedom which Israel has enjoyed to do whatever it likes in Syria since the civil war broke out nearly six years ago is narrowing. Israeli military and government know very well that Putin’s patience is running out.

December 17, 2016

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