The September 16 attack by the Israel Air Force in Latakia, at whose conclusion Syria’s aerial defense system downed a Russian intelligence-gathering aircraft, came at the end of a particularly sensitive day in the Syrian arena. A few hours earlier, in Sochi, Russia, the president of that country and Turkey had agreed on details of an arrangement which, for the time being, is delaying a major airstrike by the Russians against the tens of thousands of rebels and nearly three million civilians who are trapped in the Idlib enclave. That area, located in northern Syria, is the last central bastion remaining to opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad after seven-and-a-half years of civil war.
The Assad regime had intended to seize control of Idlib in the same way that it has restored its rule over two-thirds of the country’s territory in the past few years – via murderous pommeling with the aid of Russian bombers, at the end of which the rebels hoist the white flag. However, the Russians and Syrians have discovered that the battle for Idlib will be different from the one waged in Aleppo and elsewhere. For the first time, the Russians have encountered limits on their use of power in Syria.
Foreseeing strong resistance in Idlib, the Assad regime had deployed for the extensive use of “neutralizing” chemical weaponry, chlorine gas (while, concomitantly, reports appeared in the Russian media about plots among the rebels to fake a chemical attack against them). However, Turkey has insisted on backing the rebels, who are situated close to its southern border, while the United States and France have threatened to use force against Syria’s regime if it resorts to use of chemical weapons again.
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Under such circumstances, the Russians, in two meetings – in Tehran and afterward in Sochi – decided to come to an agreement with Ankara on freezing the status quo. The region south of Idlib is to be declared a demilitarized zone, Turkey will be responsible for ensuring that the rebels’ heavy weapons are removed from the enclave, and Turkish and Russian forces will enforce the cease-fire. At some point, Moscow could well violate the agreement, when it’s convenient for it, but in the meantime Idlib will remain a stick in the regime’s craw, along with the U.S. troops stationed at the Tanf airbase in southern Syria, and the Kurdish-held areas in the northeast. At this stage, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin is being forced to rein in his ambitions. The agreement was reached to the chagrin of President Assad, who had counted on another lethal show of force by the Russians.
As that agreement was being hammered out, a convoy of trucks in Latakia, Syria, was preparing for another smuggling mission from that country to Lebanon. According to the Israel Defense Forces, this time the goods, whose delivery was organized by Tehran, included means of production for improving the level of accuracy of rockets being used by Hezbollah. In preparatory meetings held by the IDF General Staff, an attack on those goods was deemed essential and urgent.
The attack proceeded like dozens and hundreds of previous strikes in recent years. Four F-16s took off from an IAF base in the south, flew north, and when they reached a high altitude east of Cyprus, released their munitions at the targets in Latakia. In the IDF debriefing, details of which were also presented to the Russians, the time that appears for the firing of the munitions is 9:42 P.M. According to the army, the Russians were given an advance warning at 9:38, four minutes before the start of the firing. The munition itself hit the target at 9:50. (Russia maintains that it got a warning of only one minute.) At the time the munitions were dispatched, a Russian Ilyushin aircraft was in the skies of northern Syria, about 200 kilometers east of the Israeli planes. For a reason that the Russians are not explaining, the plane did not have an identification system (known as “identification, friend or foe”), which would have enabled the Syrians on the ground to recognize that the aircraft belonged to their ally.
The Ilyushin continued westward. At 9:52 P.M., Syrian air defenses started to go berserk, firing 27 missiles every which way. At 10:05 P.M., the Russian plane was hit by a missile fired by an S-200 battery. By this time, the Israeli planes were near Haifa, on their way to landing.
Israel has vehemently rejected a Russian claim that one of the F-16s hid behind the Ilyushin. The two aircraft were flying in different areas, at different altitudes and at different speeds. It’s possible – and if so, it would reveal a particularly low level of professional capability – that the Syrians mistakenly identified other Israeli planes as a result of the IDF’s use of electronic warfare, which is routine operational behavior according to foreign media reports. The Russians, in any case, should have known where the Israeli planes were. Israel is convinced that the radar image published by the Russians in their debriefing of the incident is simply fabricated – the F-16s were not in the place that the Russians claim they were when the Ilyushin was hit.
The downing of the plane was another serious blow to the Russians, following the compromise forced on them with respect to Idlib. Moscow, and notably its chain of command in Syria, has been extremely unhappy about the ongoing series of Israeli attacks in recent years, and believe that they have sometimes endangered its personnel in the field. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has led the hawkish line, under the influence of top officials in Syria. The Kremlin has other concerns, too, focusing on the Trump administration – including the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran and the 12-point list of demands on Iran of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which for the first time constitutes exertion of heavy pressure on the Iranian regime, together with continuation of the U.S. campaign against ISIS and Al-Qaida.
Like Moscow, Jerusalem, too, believes that Washington holds the key to the termination of the crisis in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, after speaking with U.S. President Donald Trump on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, that he got from Trump “everything I asked for” and that the president “gave explicit directives on the subject.”
In the meantime, at Putin’s request, the first S-300 missile systems will arrive in Syria as soon as early next week. The Russian move, which Jerusalem has protested and the United States condemned, will constitute a new obstacle to future Israeli moves against Iran in Syria. To date, Israel views these as a success: Iran has not realized its ambitions at the pace and the scope it had planned. A considerable proportion of its attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon have been thwarted. Nor will Iran have a naval or air base in Syria at the end of 2018 (the Assad regime refused to allow this, under Russian pressure), and it has not deployed 100,000 Shi’ite militiamen in Syria, as planned. Iran has also been forced to vacate its military compound at the Syrian T-4 airbase, adjacent to Homs, against the background of repeated Israeli attacks.
In the civilian realm, however, the Iranians are moving ahead. This is reflected in a heavily funded program for Shi’ite indoctrination of Syria’s Alawite minority, which is identified with the regime, and includes the takeover of institutes of education and academia under the nose of President Assad.
The assessment of Israeli intelligence is that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are determined to continue their efforts to achieve military consolidation in Syria and will not desist, despite the demurrer of President Hassan Rohani. In these circumstances, the political and military consensus in Israel is that the IDF will have no choice but to continue to attack Iranian targets in Syria, and that to call off the strikes would be an abdication of responsibility in the realm of security.
In what appears to be an outbreak of exaggerated optimism, Israel hopes that Russia will ultimately get over its anger at the downing of its aircraft. Much of that depends on the position Trump will take. As of this week, the president’s advisers have been able to persuade him to leave some 3,000 American soldiers in Syria – at Tanf and in the Kurdish region. Moscow wants the Americans out, but the United States insists that its departure is contingent on Iranian military personnel leaving Syria.
There seems to be an opportunity here for a comprehensive settlement in Syria, but that depends, as usual, on the scale of the interest and seriousness to be demonstrated by the Trump administration. Some will say that the likelihood that the opportunity will not be realized is already built into the wording of the question.