Analysis

Israel's Extensive Syria Strike Signals: Business as Usual Despite Trump and Putin

The strike in the Damascus area was likely aimed at a specific target such as Iranian weapons depots, but it has a wider geopolitical context ■ Netanyahu is reverse-engineering facts on Hezbollah tunnels ahead of elections

This frame grab from a video provided by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows missiles flying into the sky near Damascus, Syria, December 25, 2018.
Uncredited,AP

>> UPDATE: Russia: Israel's Syria strike directly endangered two civilian flights

The extensive aerial attack on Syria Tuesday attributed to Israel came less than a week after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the pullout of American forces from the country. The alleged Israeli strike may have been in pursuit of some specific military goal - to bomb Iranian weapons depots, for instance - but it has a broader political context. Israel is signaling that from its perspective, it's business as usual again: Despite Trump's announcement and despite Russia's fury about its Ilyushin plane getting shot down last September, Israel sees itself as free to continue attacking targets in Syria, when necessary.

Israeli attacks on Syria have very much reduced since the downing of the Ilyushin (which the Syria aerial defense system shot by mistake during an Israeli air raid), according to foreign media reports.

Haaretz Weekly podcast, Episode 9Haaretz

>> Read more: U.S. exit from Syria could redraw the map of the Middle East's blocs ■ Thank you, Trump, for getting out of Syria ■ Israel left with false Russian promises and a volatile U.S. president ■ Israel gears up for elections: Netanyahu’s strongest advantage over his challengers | Analysis

Russia, wanting to stabilize the Assad regime, pressed Iran to reduce its arms smuggling and attempts to establish a military presence in Syria; it also leveraged the incident of the downed plane to press Israel to reduce its Syria strikes.

The Israeli army sent a delegation headed by General Aharon Haliwa, head of the IDF operations division, to Moscow in mid-December. It is possible that Russia's opposition to Israel's renewed attacks in Syria was softened to some degree by that meeting. The Russians could also have an interest in Israel constraining the Iranian drive to increase its military assets in Syria.

Did Israel take a calculated risk? Russia condemned the attack on Wednesday afternoon and accused Israel of endangering two civilian planes flying near Damascus and Beirut.

It is of interest in any case that the attacks ascribed to Israel are focusing on the greater Damascus area, remote from the most sensitive area from Russia's perspective – an air base and the cities of Tartus and Latakia, in northwest Syria where the Ilyushin was shot down.

Israel has another argument beyond the message that Trump's withdrawal does not deflect it from its path. Last summer, when Russia aided Assad's forces in regaining Syria's south, Moscow promised Jerusalem that it would keep the Iranians 80 kilometers away from Israel's border in the Golan Heights.

In practice, the Russians didn't include Damascus and its suburbs in that no-go zone, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds force continues to operate there. Moreover, there are still signs of Iranian and Hezbollah activity on the Syrian side of the border in the Golan Heights.

In any case, the resumed Israeli-Iranian brawl in Syria is still low-key. Israel may prefer to strike more targets in fewer raids to prevent a gratuitous escalation of the situation. According to Syrian reports, the Israeli jets that struck Damascus operated from Lebanese airspace. The Syrian anti-aircraft systems responded, as they have done over the last two years, with massive missile fire. One of the missiles seemed to penetrate Israeli airspace and an intercepting missile was fired in response. Insofar as is known, there was no interception and the IDF did not specify which air defense systems were activated.

Meanwhile, the IDF is still working on locating Hezbollah tunnels on the Lebanese border. Likud ministers on the talk radio circuit on Tuesday following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's surprise snap election announcement said the mission up north is all but over. 

It's a classic case of reverse engineering the facts. To prevent Habayit Hayehudi from abandoning the coalition in mid-November, Netanyahu used the excuse of the tunnels (the nature of the challenge remains as mysterious to Hezbollah as it does to the Israeli public), claiming that the military situation was sensitive (so elections shouldn't be held).

Now that the legal and political circumstances have changed and elections are planned, one can hardly be in the middle of a sensitive operation, hence the haste to declare it all but finished. 

In practice, however, it will take many more weeks to finish finding and destroying all of Hezbollah's tunnels into Israel. This shouldn't affect the timing of elections, but in hindsight also applies to Netanyahu's original "sacrifice" speech more than a month ago.

The tunnels operation is complicated and has some potential for trouble developing with Hezbollah, which hasn't happened yet. That's all, and it has nothing to do with the elections.