Israel was testing a missile, not the waters
Israel may have been naive to think a missile test wouldn't set alarm bells ringing at this moment in time, but Russia’s motives are also open to question.
The routine missile test Israel conducted Tuesday morning as part of its Homa missile defense strategy unintentionally placed it into the regional and inter-power tensions surrounding a possible U.S. action in Syria. The Russian early-warning system that first detected the launch mistakenly identified it as an event related to preparations to attack Syria. More than an hour passed from the Russians’ mistaken announcement until Israel clarified the facts.
The "sparrow" missile test took place despite the tensions in Syria, not because of them. The Defense Ministry, in coordination with the U.S. defense establishment, periodically tests the sparrow, which is the target missile used in tests of the Arrow and other anti-missile defense systems. This launch was of the sparrow alone, with no attempt made to shoot it down.
The fact it was detected demonstrates that the Russians are seemingly on heightened alert over what is happening in the region, out of concern regarding the possible U.S. attack on Syria.
The test took place hundreds of kilometers south of the Syrian border. Did the Russians really believe the move was connected to preparations for an attack, or did they just feel like heating things up with a dramatic announcement? It’s not totally clear.
In any case, it seems Israel mistakenly assumed that such a test could be conducted without it being interpreted as being related to the tensions. Such a move must have been coordinated with Washington, because these are joint exercises with America’s Missile Defense Agency, which helps fund these anti-missile systems. Thus, the assumption that it would be possible to separate the exercise from what is going on in Syria must have been shared by the defense officials of both countries.
In contrast to previous tense periods when much psychological warfare occurred - including numerous declarations by Israel aimed at Syria or Iran - this exercise shouldn’t be interpreted as an Israeli regional message, for the simple reason that it was a relatively small exercise that was apparently not accompanied by a demonstration of any impressive capabilities.
Israel has been trying to keep a relatively low media profile in recent days, making no detailed announcements of its intentions, certainly not until Congress decides how the United States will proceed regarding Syria.
All told, the Netanyahu government is taking a responsible security position, refraining from bellicosity on the northern frontier. The only one making statements occasionally is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who within 24 hours inaugurated two large infrastructure projects.
Netanyahu spoke Tuesday about the regional situation in relatively general terms. He announced the high readiness of the Israel Defense Forces and implicitly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad against attacking Israel, without going into details.
Still, the Israeli leadership’s insistence on repeatedly reminding everyone that Israel is strong and confident reminds one of a person who whistles in the dark to keep himself calm.