Analysis

Strike in Syria: Is Israel Playing Russian Roulette?

If reports on the recent bombings in Syria are true, it would appear that Israel considered the target urgent enough and believed Moscow wouldn't object.

A Russian fighter jet in Syria, May, 2016.
A Russian fighter jet in Syria, May, 2016. Reuters

The air strike early Wednesday morning near the Damascus airport is the second attack in Syria attributed to Israel within a week. In addition to the reports to this effect in the Arab media, there have been official claims by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, although these didn’t have a particularly emotional tone.

Most of the attention on Wednesday was generated by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s address to EU diplomats only hours after the attack. He explained that Israel always seeks to protect its citizens, and also to prevent the smuggling of sophisticated weapons and weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hezbollah.

This is the same policy and the same red lines that Israel marked with regard to the Syrian civil war five years ago. But Lieberman’s forceful wording led to headlines that practically had Israel taking official responsibility (something Israel prefers not to do with regard to attacks of this kind). In addition, it looked like a direct reference to the smuggling of chemical weapons, although nothing of this nature has been reported since the dismantling of most of Syria’s arsenal of such weapons in 2013.

Another question relates to the degree to which Russia knew of or was involved in the attacks. Hezbollah and of course the Syrian army are part of the Russian-led military alliance defending the regime in Damascus. At the same time, the Russians have a mechanism for preventing confrontations with the Israeli air force in the Syrian arena. If the claims by Syria and Hezbollah that it was Israel which hit the weapons warehouses are correct, did Russia know about the strikes in advance and turn a blind eye, or was it as surprised by the bombings as the others?

Reports on the two attacks came after a long break from similar reports from Syria. The apparent lull in the bombings probably stems from a combination of two things: the deployment and intensified activity of the Russian air force in northern Syria (recently accompanied by the positioning of air defense systems that cover a wide range), together with the increased tension between Moscow and Washington before the U.S. presidential election. It could be that given these circumstances, Israel decided to restrain itself for a time.

The victory of Donald Trump, who has often expressed his admiration for Russia and shows no interest in American military activity in Syria, could signal a cooling off of the bilateral hostility.

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According to the official data about the Russian air defense systems, their radar is capable of identifying the movement of Israeli planes deep in Israeli territory, all the way to the northern Negev. Therefore it’s unlikely that Israeli air activity could go unnoticed by the Russians. But the last attacks in Syria have a lot in common. According to the reports, they took place in the Damascus area in southern Syria, at night (when the Russian air force is barely active) and the planes that fired the missiles did not penetrate Syrian airspace, but worked from afar.

It could be that Moscow is less concerned about attacks that take place outside its immediate area of interest and which are not close to its airbase at Tartous. Arabic media have reported that at least some of the weapons destroyed during Wednesday’s bombings were Russian-made weapons systems. Loss of these weapons is liable to lead to additional procurement from Russia, i.e., more revenues.

All this doesn’t mean that Israel is telling Russia about its activities in Syria in advance. Lieberman denied this explicitly at the beginning of last week, after the bombing of an Islamic State base in the southern part of the Syrian Golan Heights. The most reasonable assumption is that Israel has analyzed Russia’s regions of interest and decides to act if the target is urgent enough – one that threatens to cross a red line, as the defense minister put it – and if it believes that attacking will not lead to a direct confrontation with the Russians.

Still, after two strikes and official aggressive Israeli remarks, it seems there's a thin line Israel's decision-makers must toe very carefully. The last thing Israel needs is a showdown with Russia, certainly when America’s withdrawal from dealing with Syria leaves Russia as the main player calling the shots.