Analysis

The Airstrike in Syria: Does Putin Understand Israel's Urgent Security Needs?

Israel reportedly attacked Hezbollah-bound arms convoys in Syria, under the watchful eye of Russia's advanced radar and air-defense missiles.

Russia's S-400 air defense missile systems at an airfield in the Syrian province of Latakia, 2016.
Russia's S-400 air defense missile systems at an airfield in the Syrian province of Latakia, 2016. AFP

Arab media reports Wednesday that Israeli jets struck arms convoys and Hezbollah storehouses in Syria were unusual, going by the norm over the past year.

Israel doesn’t confirm or deny attacks on arms smugglers in Syria, so we can never know if an alleged strike was carried out by Israel or a force embroiled in the Syrian civil war. But over the past year there has been a steep drop in the number of Arab media reports on attacks by the Israel Air Force.

This change probably has to do with the new player in town – Russia – which in September 2015 deployed two squadrons in northwest Syria in the Latakia-Tartus area, and in recent months has beefed up its radar and missile-interception batteries in Syria. The Russian move, which peaked in daily bombing raids on eastern Aleppo, basically saved the Assad regime.

The moment Russia put squadrons in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew off to Moscow for an urgent meeting with President Vladimir Putin. The two have since met another three times; Israel and Russia have set up a mechanism to minimize the risk that Israeli and Russian pilots will find themselves in a dogfight over Syria’s skies, or that Israel will shoot down a Russian plane, or vice versa.

If the reports of an Israeli strike are true, it is highly likely to conclude that Israel does not inform Russia before its planes enter Syrian or Lebanese airspace (Israeli aircraft fly over Lebanon to strike targets in Syria, according to Lebanese reports). Israel is probably only updating Moscow when it fears immediate friction between the two armies.

Syria

Subsequent reports say that Syrian anti-aircraft units, loosely coordinating with Russia, have failed to shoot down Israeli planes. In one case a few months ago, a Russian drone accidentally penetrated Israeli airspace in the Golan Heights and the IAF tried to intercept it but missed.

The heightened Russian presence has constrained the IAF to some degree. According to information in the public domain, Russian radar systems have a range of 400 kilometers (249 miles), so the Russians should be able to see any Israeli jet taking off from practically anywhere – at least north of the northern Negev.

Since Hezbollah is now a member of the Russian-Iranian alliance to save Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israel can’t rule out that some of this information the Russians are gleaning will reach the Lebanese Shi’ite group.

An Israeli F-16I fighter jet, dubbed 'Sufa,' taking off.
Ilan Assayag

If Israel really did attack Syria on Tuesday night, there was probably an urgent need. Addressing the UN General Assembly in September, Netanyahu said Israel would continue to take action to prevent advanced weapons systems from reaching Hezbollah from Syria. But it seems Hezbollah has already received new SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles and accurate Yakhont anti-ship missiles.

Another development that has been worrying Israelis leaders for a long time is the smuggling of rockets that enormously improve Hezbollah’s medium-range accuracy. Does Russia understand Israel’s urgent needs? Is it willing to ignore attacks that are attributed to Israel as long as they stay rare? Neither country will say.

Tuesday night’s events also need to be seen in a broader context. The Obama administration, it’s now clear, won’t be using its last 50 days to actively intervene in Syria and thwart the progress being made by the Assad regime and the Russians.

But Putin appears happy to exploit the several weeks between the old U.S. administration and the dawn of a new era under Donald Trump, who has already expressed extraordinary admiration for Moscow’s interests. Putin appears happy to step up the pressure on the Syrian rebels and hand a victory to Assad, or at least a victory in Aleppo.

That said, based on the current balance of power, and the massive economic support for the rebels by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Assad regime probably can’t gain enough momentum to regain control of most of Syria. But the stunning success in Aleppo (in recent days, rebel strongholds in the city’s northeast have collapsed under bombing raids) could improve Assad’s position and maybe help him achieve better conditions – if a stable truce is ever reached. Which seems unlikely these days.

As far as Israel is concerned, the scenario isn’t good. Even though Netanyahu would never say so explicitly, five and a half years of civil war in Syria have been a good strategic development for Israel, despite the risks. The Syrian army has collapsed, losing much of the tactical prowess it once aimed at Israel.

Moreover, the war paralyzes two camps that are both hostile to Israel – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on side, extremist Sunni groups on the other. They’re all too busy to seriously mess with Israeli forces right now.

So any success by the axis supporting Assad is bad news for Israel. It’s also relevant to Israel’s northern border in the Golan.

In recent years, the rebels managed to whisk the Syrian army away from most of the border area. Victories by Assad in the Golan too (even if it’s not a high priority for him) or temporary truces could help the regime – and therefore Iran and Hezbollah – regain holdings in the Heights. That’s a worrying scenario for Netanyahu, even as he’s trying to conceal his glee over Trump’s victory in the United States.