If and When Israel Strikes in Syria, Russia is Surprisingly Quiet About It

[This is based on an article for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the history of Israel’s intelligence and security agencies — Spies Against Armageddon.]

We should not ignore — or underestimate — the warnings of the Syrian Government and its army’s capability to respond to Thursday night’s attack, which Syria attributed to Israel. The spokesperson for the Syrian Army claimed that Israeli planes flying near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) in northern Israel fired missiles that hit the Mezzah military airport, located near Damascus. The airport is approximately five kilometers from Basher Assad’s presidential palace. Opposition leaders claim that there were more targets, in addition to the airport.

Yossi Melman

Yossi Melman

This is not the first time that the Syrian Army and Assad’s government have blamed Israel for attacks in Syrian territory, threatening retaliation. Until now, the threats have been empty threats.

It is clear that Assad does not want to open a new front with Israel. Just recently, with the help of Russian fighter jets, Hezbollah forces alongside Iranian Shi’ite ground forces and the Syrian army were able to defeat rebel forces and regain territory. These successes raised the Syrian army’s morale, upping their confidence. In their next conflict or the one after, Syrian leadership may develop “Crying Wolf” syndrome. Strike after strike and in the end, Assad may decide to respond.

public CIA map of Syria

public CIA map of Syria

Another possibility is for Assad to use a proxy to attack, using Palestinians or Hezbollah on the Golan Heights border in order to rattle Israel. This is something that already happened two years ago when Iranian forces, together with Hezbollah, Palestinians and pro-Syrian Druze created cells which attacked Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.

According to foreign reports, Israel managed to squash the cells by assassination, which included Jihad Mughniyah, whose father, Imad Mughniyah (Hezbollah’s “defense minister”), was assassinated in a joint Mossad and CIA operation in 2008. Druze terrorist Samir Kontar was also killed.

The Israeli security establishment does not belittle threats from Syria, taking into account a reaction from Damascus, though the probability of an attack is currently low.

According to foreign reports, Israel has attacked Syria ten to fifteen times in recent years, eliminating sophisticated weaponry such as air defense systems, navigation and guided systems as well as long-distance missiles — all of which were supplied from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah.

However, what is especially interesting is Russia’s silence. A spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry has in the past warned the United States and coalition forces not to attack the Syrian regime.  Yet Russia has remained silent on the alleged Israeli attack.

If Russia, Assad’s biggest supporter, was against Israeli attacks and warned against them, it would have limited Israel’s freedom of action.

This leads us to believe that there is probably a quiet understanding between Jerusalem and Moscow. Beyond “de-conflicting,” or preventing the two militaries from shooting at each other, the full nature of the agreement remains unknown.

The deal was reached in meetings involving Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel — with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military chiefs. It seems as though Israel enjoys freedom of movement in firing missiles into Syria.

It is possible to conclude that Russia understands that Israel’s interests are solely to prevent arms transfers of sophisticated weapons from reaching Hezbollah. They also know Israel’s red line. Israel has no interest in entering Syria’s civil war, not by supporting the rebels or by acting against the regime.

It seems that so long as Russia continues to accept these principles, Israel will continue to act from time to time with accurate intelligence.

 

 

 

January 15, 2017

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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