Russia responded angrily to the Israeli air force attack in the Damascus region that took place on Dec. 25.
The Russian defense ministry announced that Israel’s attack on Syria endangered civilian flights, and the Syrian army intercepted 87 percent of the missiles fired by Israel.
Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian defense ministry, claimed that six Israeli F-16 fighter planes attacked Lebanese airspace.
He used harsh language not heard before, referring to the attack as “a provocative action of the Israeli air force that directly endangered two civilian airplanes that had landed in Damascus and Beirut, along with their passengers.”
This Russian announcement caused concern among the diplomatic establishment in Jerusalem. It indicates that, contrary to the feeling that prevailed in Jerusalem following a recent visit of an Israel Defense Forces’ military delegation to Moscow that Israel was on its way to resolving the crisis between both countries after the downing of a Russian plane in September 2018, the crisis has still not been resolved. The Russians are again trying to set new rules of the game for Israel in Syrian airspace.
On Dec. 26, the Associated Press news agency quoted an Israeli security source, who confirmed that Israel indeed attacked Syria on the previous day. The Israeli source rejected the claims of the Russian defense ministry that the Israeli Air Force planes endangered the two civilian aircraft in Lebanese airspace.
The source accused the Russians of not keeping their promise to Israel to distance the Iranians away from the border, and the Iranians are currently operating in Syria at a distance of less than 80 kilometers away from the border with Israel.
According to the Israeli source, the IDF destroyed logistical targets at three sites belonging to the Iranian forces in Syria, as well as anti-aircraft missile batteries in the Damascus region that fired on the Israeli planes.
Israel’s successful attack angered the Russians, who recently constructed a sophisticated aerial-defense system in Syria. Apart from the S-300 missiles that they supplied to Syria, they also provided advanced radar equipment and built a new aerial-defense system that is intended not only to deter flights by the IAF, but also flights by U.S. jets in Syrian airspace.
A war of no choice in Syria
Israel has no intention of ending its attacks on Syria, which are intended to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in that country. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at this in a speech on Dec. 26 at a ceremony marking the completion of an IAF cadet-training course at one of its bases: “Israel is acting against Iranian entrenchment in Syria also at this time,” he emphasized.
The Iranians have resumed their airlifts to Syria, in which they transfer weapons to Hezbollah. They also feel encouraged by President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria. When this happens, in another two months, they will try again to transfer arms from Iran to Syria and Lebanon overland, through the border crossings from Iraq into Syria. This will compel Israel to attack these deliveries from the air, as well.
The Israeli war against Iranian entrenchment in Syria is a war of no choice. The Iranians are determined to transfer “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah to improve the accuracy of rockets that they possess, and to open a new front against Israel from the Golan Heights via Hezbollah and the pro-Shi’ite militias.
For this reason, in spite of the current crisis with Russia, Israel must protect its security interests and cannot allow itself to end the activities of the air force in Syrian airspace.
President Vladimir Putin is clearly standing by Syrian President Bashar Assad. He derives legitimacy for establishing Russian bases in Syria from the Syrian president, who “invited” Russia to be a “guest” in Syria.
It is in the Kremlin’s interest to reduce Israeli aerial operations in Syrian airspace to a minimum until they secure a complete halt to assist Assad. They are now trying to push Israel out of Syrian skies with the claim that the IAF planes endangered civilian flights. This claim is incorrect, as the IAF planes were very far from the civilian aircraft. Civilian flights are constantly flying over the Syrian coast from the Cyprus area. Should Israel halt its flights deep inside Syria because of this?
In fact, the Syrian aerial-defense system is what is endangering civilian aviation, because it is not professional enough, and it even accidentally brought down a Russian spy plane in September 2018 in the area of Latakia.
IAF pilots are very cautious and among the best pilots in the world. Every Israeli aerial operation in Syrian airspace is carefully and painstakingly planned in order to prevent mistakes.
Disputes between Israel and Russia on this issue will not go away because the Iranians are continuing with their efforts to entrench themselves militarily in Syria. This crisis is expected to continue. Putin knows how to play the diplomatic game with Israel, and he is trying to continue exerting diplomatic pressure to end the Israeli air attacks from Syrian airspace. His interest is to bring stability and reconstruction to Syria.
The question is if Putin will now try again to distance the Iranians from the border with Israel, as he had promised. If he does, this will reduce Israel’s need to attack Iranian targets in Syria.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.