Sunday’s events in southern Syria were unusual compared to past aerial attacks attributed to Israel. For one thing, the attack was during the day, which is rare. Some of the retaliatory fire from Syria came a relatively long period after the attack, and came very close to Israeli territory. Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted the Syrian fire right in front of thousands of Israeli tourists who had packed Mount Hermon. It later emerged that the missile fired from Syria toward the Golan Heights was a ground-to-ground missile and not an anti-aircraft missile, meaning it was a deliberate response to the bombing in Damascus.
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The previous attack in Syria was also exceptional in that Israel took public responsibility. At first it was hinted at by former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who told the New York Times that Israel had attacked thousands of targets in Syria over the past few years. Then, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting on January 13, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly stated that the Israel Air Force had attacked an Iranian weapons depot near Damascus Airport.
This time the attack caught Netanyahu on a diplomatic visit to Chad, during which diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored, and his remarks were more general.
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“We have a set policy, to target the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and to harm whoever tries to harm us,” he said. “This policy doesn’t change when I am in Israel or while I am on a historic visit to Chad.”
Netanyahu’s decision to retreat behind the veil of ambiguity again compels the Israeli media to adopt censorship rules that have become completely irrelevant. As a result, all reports of the attack are based on foreign media reports from Syria. Is anyone still buying this “as if” game anymore? It doesn’t seem that the Syrians, Iranians or the Israeli public are. If the screen of censorship is raised and lowered again and again in accordance with the prime minister’s judgment (or political whims), it seems that maintaining it has no justification.
But that’s just a tangential question compared to the strategic issue – the Israeli effort to maintain freedom of aerial movement in the north, even after the Assad regime’s victory in the Syrian civil war and the Russian effort to put an end to the IAF attacks by leveraging the downing of the Russian Ilyushin plane in September.
Israel is fighting two phenomena in Syria – the smuggling of advanced weapons to Hezbollah to Lebanon and the new Iranian military buildup. After the Ilyushin was accidentally shot down by Syrian air defenses, Russia is worried about any Israeli approach toward the base where its planes are stationed in the northwestern part of Syria. But it is important for Israel to continue its bombardments, at least in central and southern Syria, and to signal to the Iranians that Russian dissatisfaction with Israeli moves does not grant them immunity from attack.
Over the past two years, and even more so in recent months, Syria has reacted to any Israeli attack on its territory with massive anti-aircraft fire. This is not the first case that ground-to-ground missiles have been fired from Syria, but the last time such a missile was launched, in May, it was an Iranian response that came a month after a series of attacks attributed to Israel. This time, a relatively long period after the attack, there was no anti-aircraft fire but rather a ground-to-ground fired towards Syria’s border with Israel on the Golan Heights.
This was not an accidental misfire, but a deliberate message that could lead Israel to retaliate for the attempt to attack its territory. The question, as usual, is one of attribution. Did the Assad regime decide to fire, was it a Shi’ite militia controlled by the Iranians or was it a coordinated move by both parties? The fact that this is a missile might point to the Syrian regime.
The new rules of the game in Syria, following the stabilization of the Assad regime, have not yet crystallized. Israel must walk a thin line in an attempt to continue to attack Iran and Hezbollah without causing a direct confrontation with Russia. This is a problem that will continue to preoccupy the new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, over the coming months.
At the same time, it is impossible to ignore another sensitive front – Gaza. Israel has not yet said when it will approve the transfer of Qatari money to Hamas, which has been delayed for a week, although a Qatari diplomat told Reuters on Sunday that the cash will be transferred this week.
Both sides have an interest in the infusion of funds: Israel wants relative calm and Hamas needs the $15 million like oxygen.
Politically, this transaction is taking place at an uncomfortable time for the prime minister given the growing criticism of him from the right since the election campaign began. Yet delaying the money too long could aggravate the tensions in the south just as the Syrian border is heating up.