Is Russia’s Hidden Hand Somewhere in the Samir Kuntar Assassination?

Missile strike on target in Damascus is clear challenge to Moscow, which raises question of whether there was some kind of understanding or coordination in advance.

Members of Hezbollah carry the coffin of Lebanese militant Samir Kuntar, killed in an airstrike in Damascus, December 21, 2015.
AFP

Around 20 airstrikes in Syria have been attributed to Israel over the last four and a half years. While Israel has not taken direct responsibility for any of them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged last month for the first time that Israel is operating in Syria to interdict arms shipments to Hezbollah. Israel once again refused to confirm or deny it was behind the strike on a building in a southern suburb of Damascus on Saturday night, but ostensibly, this would seem the one that is easiest to connect. After all, the most prominent of the nine people killed in the attack, reportedly by four missiles hitting the structure, was Samir Kuntar, one of the most reviled killers in a long history of anti-Israeli terrorists, whom Israel released in a prisoners-for-bodies 2008 deal after he served 29 years for the murders in the 1979 Nahariya attack on the Haran family.

But it is unlikely that the airstrike was a straightforward act of revenge, and on closer examination many questions remain unanswered as to the timing, location and intended target of this attack. With Kuntar dead, buried and eulogized by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, it seems clear now that he was no terror super-mastermind. Tasked with mobilizing his fellow Druze on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights to carry out terror attacks against Israel, he was largely unsuccessful, causing the deaths of more Druze than Israelis. Marginalized by Hezbollah, who preferred using their own operatives, he was cooperating with Iran’s Quds Force when killed.

If indeed Kuntar was killed by Israeli missiles, it would indicate that the intelligence which guided the planners to his location also included details of another cross-border attack he was planning. But this was still not a straightforward interdiction, and not because of Kuntar’s blood-drenched past.

Most of the previous strikes attributed to Israel took place near the Syria-Lebanon border, on Hezbollah convoys transporting arms to the organization’s strongholds. At least two strikes were on targets around Damascus but those were also connected to convoys and arms depots or development centers. The only previous strike that targeted individuals, rather than materiel, came in January when Hezbollah commanders Jihad Mughniyeh and Mohammed Issa, along with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, were killed near Kuneitra. In the aftermath, there were those in Israel’s security hierarchy who feared that such prominent targets being killed could lead to an Iranian-backed escalation with Hezbollah. The retaliation 10 days later; a border explosion killing two Israeli soldiers, was seen in Israel as “limited.”

Manner, timing of strike is significant

Kuntar, despite his past notoriety, was not in the league of Mughniyeh, Issa and Allahdadi. But the manner and timing of his death is significant. Not only was he killed by missiles hitting a residential building in Damascus, but the attack took place three months after Russian forces began deploying to Syria and Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin officially became patrons of Bashar Assad. Israel has reportedly carried out three attacks in Syria during this period, but those were on convoys in the Qalamoun region near the border, not the Syrian capital, now under the Russian air-defense umbrella of Sukhoi interceptors and the S400 missile system. American aircraft now fly only over a very restricted area of Syria, just Raqqa, ISIS’s main stronghold in the northeast, for fear of conflict with Russia’s fighters.

A missile strike on a target in Damascus, even if, as has been reported by some media, it was carried out using standoff missiles outside Syrian airspace, is a clear challenge to Russia. Unless, there was some kind of understanding or coordination in advance, it is hard to imagine Israel going ahead with such an attack.

Since Saturday night there has been no response from Russia. On Tuesday afternoon, Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone, and according to the Prime Minister’s Office they discussed “the war on terror.” Did Kuntar come up in their chat? At any rate, the Kremlin has not voiced any displeasure with the fatal strike.

Moscow's calculations

Russia has two interests in Syria. One is maintaining its hold on the port of Tartous, its only military base on the Mediterranean (Warm-water ports are a strategic obsession of the Russians since the days of the Czarist empire.) The other interest is forcing the West to accept the fact that it can’t dictate Assad’s removal. There have been setbacks for the Russians – the shooting-down by Turkey last month of a fighter jet that crossed the border, and a less than successful ground campaign to retake large areas of Syria’s heartland controlled by the rebels. Ostensibly its allies on the ground are Iran and Hezbollah, but Putin is interested in keeping Syria’s southern neighbor on side as well.

Unlike the Obama administration, which demanded that Assad leave, and is now shamefacedly walking that back in the interest of pursuing a joint diplomatic solution with Russia and focusing on ISIS, Israel has remained officially agnostic on Assad’s future. Despite fears in parts of the Israeli defense establishment that Russia would “bind Israel’s hands” in Syria, the coordination between the two sides is working well, by all accounts. Last month a Russian jet inadvertently crossed the border over the Golan, but the solution was quickly resolved. “We don’t stand on their balls and they don’t stand on ours,” said one senior Israeli official.

As 2015 ends, Syria may be ending a transition period, with attempts to impose a cease-fire. Russia may have ensured Assad’s survival, which should be good news for Iran and Hezbollah, who were there for Assad, helping him butcher at least a quarter of a million Syrians, from the early stages of the civil war. But most of Iran’s ground forces have been withdrawn, after multiple casualties, including a number of senior officers killed. Hezbollah is still there but has lost around 1,400 fighters and thousands more injured; an estimated third of its fighting force.

Meanwhile, Russia is firmly in control and seems to be taking Israel’s security concerns into consideration. Such an outcome, where their man is taken out in Russian-dominated Damascus, allegedly by Israel, was hardly what they were contemplating in Tehran and in Nasrallah’s Beirut bunker.