Putin Hints Russia Will Clip Israel’s Wings Over Syrian Skies

Over 10 different attacks in Syria have been attributed to Israel over the past two and a half years - but Russia's presence in Syria could soon change that.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. President Barack Obama, during their one-on-one meeting in New York early Tuesday, that he was concerned about the Israeli attacks in Syria. He was apparently not referring to the Israeli missiles in the Golan Heights, fired earlier in the week at two artillery positions of the Syrian army in the wake of stray fire into Israeli territory from battles between the rebels and the Syrian army.

Rather, Putin’s statement was more general, referring to over 10 strikes in Syrian territory that have been attributed to Israel over the past two and a half years.

The Syrian area of Quneitra is seen in the background as an out-of-commission Israeli tank parks on a hill near the Israel-Syria border, August 21, 2015.Credit: Reuters

It showed that despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin in Moscow last week, Russia intends to create new facts on the ground in Syria that will include restricting Israel’s freedom of movement in Syrian skies.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Tuesday that Israel does not coordinate its actions in the north with Russia. “We have interests, and when they are threatened we act and we will continue to act, and that was also made clear to the president of Russia. We have no intention of giving up our ability to protect our interests and I advise that we not be tested,” Ya’alon said, adding, “We will continue to defend our red lines.”

A view of Russian fighter jets and helicopters at a military base in the government-controlled coastal Syrian city of Latakia. Credit: AFP

The Russian combat aircraft that were stationed at the beginning of the month in northwestern Syria have still not taken an active part in significant aerial attacks against Islamic State targets. Russian air crews are busy collecting intelligence and testing the command and control array that was established at a base near Latakia, in the area under the control of the Assad regime.

Anti-aircraft batteries have been deployed at the base, but so far the Russians have not engaged with any of the other air forces active in the area.

The assessment of Israel and Western states that are monitoring the situation is that as long as the Russian activity is limited to aerial strikes, without the participation of ground troops, its military efficacy against Islamic State will also be limited. Successes in the fight against the Islamic State groubt have come only when both air and ground assaults were carried out, as in the U.S.-led coalition’s strikes in northeastern Syria, with support from Kurdish ground troops.

Battles resume across the border

Fighting between the Syrian army and rebel groups was renewed this week northeast of Quneitra, around the last areas that Assad’s regime still holds near the Israeli border. The battles are taking place around the line of fortifications separating Quneitra from the village of Haddad and the Syrian part of Mount Hermon in the Golan, connected by a fairly narrow corridor to the capital city of Damascus.

The Syrian regime fears that rebel groups are trying to capture the corridor in order to interrupt the regime’s territorial contiguity and create their own contiguous territories south of the capital. To that end, the Syrian army is preparing to battle along the line of fortifications. Neither side’s actions are directed against Israel.

Israel’s main concern is over the increased Iranian presence near the border, including the systematic dispatch of local terror squads to carry out attacks in Israeli territory. The last such attack was in August, when a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell fired rockets at the Galilee and the Israeli Golan Heights. The heads of the Iranian-directed cell were killed the next day in an Israeli air strike on the Syrian side of the Golan border.

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