Analysis

Since Spy-plane Downing, Russia Toughens Stance Against Israel in Syria Skies

Russia demands Israeli army increase use of 'hotline' mechanism to prevent friction ■ S-300 missile defense systems provided to Syria will be manned first by Russian experts ■ Russian air defense radars in Syria were activated over Israeli air force activity

Russian President Vladimir Putin receiving diplomatic credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors, October 11, 2018
AFP

In recent weeks Russia has been taking a more forceful stance toward Israel concerning Israel Air Force activity in the north.

The Russians are demanding further clarifications from the Israel Defense Forces via the “hotline” that is meant to prevent any aerial clashes between the two parties, and there have been several instances in which Russian air defense radars in Syria were activated in connection with Israel's air force activity in the north.

Russia’s behavior is being interpreted in Israel as a response to the incident in which a Syrian anti-aircraft missile downed an Ilyushin Russian intelligence-gathering plane on September 17 at the end of an Israeli airstrike near Latakia in northwestern Syria.

Satellite image shows damage caused by alleged Israeli missile strike on targets near Syria's Latakia
ImageSat International

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last week that Israel will continue to operate in Syria for the purpose of thwarting Hezbollah’s military buildup.

At the end of last week, the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that three air defense systems supplied to Syria by Russia in late Septemeber, following the September 17 incident, were of the most advanced model of the S-300 missiles with the highest radar and target-identification capabilities.

Netanyahu with Putin in Moscow, July.
Yuri Kadobnov/AP

>> Putin now has leverage over Israel, and no reason to give it up ■ Opinion: The real issue behind the downing of the Russian plane ■ Analysis: Israel faces a much bigger challenge in Syria than S-300s

The newspaper also reported that the missile batteries will initially be operated by Russian experts. The Israeli security establishment believes that, if necessary, Israel's air force could still manage to strike targets in Syria despite the new missile batteries.

The process of training Syrian soldiers to operate the missile batteries is expected take some time and the batteries themselves are not yet fully operative.

However, Russia's main move is on the public and diplomatic front: Moscow is signaling to Israel that it intends to limit Israel’s freedom to maneuver in the Syrian skies.

The presence of Russian troops with the missile batteries will also make it harder for Israel to strike those batteries if missiles are fired from them at its air force jets.

Netanyahu said two weeks ago that he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and that they had agreed to meet soon. No date for such a meeting has been announced yet.

In the contacts that occurred in the days following the incident, the Russians were not enthusiastic about holding a high-level meeting and felt that the visit to Moscow by an Israeli military delegation headed by Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, commander of the air force, was sufficient.

Norkin shared with his Russian counterparts the detailed findings of the air force investigation of the incident, which placed full responsibility for the downing of the plane on the Syrian Army.

But Russia rejected these findings and issued its own account that accused the Israel Air Force of dangerous conduct and relied upon a completely different timetable of the events. Israeli officials believed the Russians had falsified the radar images they published of the event in order to pin the blame on the Israeli air force jets.

Russia's moves do not spell the end of Israeli airstrikes in Syria. But now, more than a month after the incident, it is clear that something has fundamentally changed and that Israel will have to take a new diplomatic and military approach in order to preserve at least some of its freedom of operation.

Thus it is worth re-examining the policies of the last few years. The string of successes by the intelligence community and the air force led to a feeling in the government that Israel could do practically whatever it pleases in Syria.

Perhaps before the downing of the Russian plane occurred, Israel did not fully grasp the attitude shift in Moscow and Damascus that came with the Assad regime’s major gains in southern Syria.

After the offensive in Latakia during which the Ilyushin plane was shot down, the IDF said that the target struck included machinery for manufacturing equipment that would improve the precision of Hezbollah rockets. According to Israel, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah militants were about to smuggle this equipment from Syria to Lebanon.

The question, in retrospect, is whether this was indeed a target that justified an Israeli strike in the heart of the Russian area of influence and interest, close to Hmeimim air base and the Tartus port, both held by Russia. It wouldn’t be the first time that an impressive show of Israel’s tactical and intelligence capabilities causes an entanglement on the strategic level.

Iran increases arms smuggling to Lebanon at Syria's expense

Last week, Fox News reported, quoting Western intelligence sources that Iran has recently increased the frequency of its arms shipments to Hezbollah using civilian flights to Beirut.

According to the report, components for installing GPS navigation systems on Hezbollah’s rockets to turn them into precision-guided weapons were transferred on Boeing 747s, some of which made stopovers at the Damascus airport.

Hezbollah apparently still lacks the full technological capability needed to quickly and effectively install these components on its rockets in Lebanon in a way that would rapidly improve their precision.

In his speech before the UN General Assembly last month, Netanyahu warned about Iran and Hezbollah’s effort to build production lines for installing the components at several sites in Beirut, including an underground compound beneath a soccer stadium and one adjacent to the airport. It’s quite possible that Israel will soon take further public measures to expose Hezbollah’s plans.

In response to Netanyahu’s UN speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech at a rally that he’d had enough of the Israeli reports and that from now on, he would not comment publicly on accusations about Hezbollah’s moves.

The Iranian focus on smuggling efforts directly to Lebanon is occurring in tandem with a certain decline over the past month in smuggling via Syria territory. Israel isn’t ruling out the possibility that the change is due to a Russian directive in wake of the incident in which the Russian plane was shot down. This development could reflect an attempt by Moscow to set new rules of the game in Syria and to reduce the friction between Israel and Iran there as part of the effort to stabilize Assad’s rule.