Over the six years of the Syrian war, dozens of airstrikes carried out against Hezbollah targets there have been ascribed to Israel. Until now the government has refused to acknowledge or deny them. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have stated publicly that Israel does attack in Syria to defend its strategic interests – in other words, preventing Hezbollah obtaining “balance-breaking” weapons for its arsenal in Lebanon. The attacks that took place early Friday were the first to be confirmed officially by the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson. While it remains unclear what the target or targets were – was it a Hezbollah convoy, a weapons factory or storage, and whether a senior Hezbollah commander was killed in the airstrike as some reports in the Arab media have claimed – a series of important questions arise from the little information that has been published.
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First, why has Israel changed its policy and suddenly acknowledged an attack? Syria’s air-defense forces launched a long-range missile in an attempt to shoot down Israel’s fighter-jets. The missile was fired much too late to endanger the planes, but could have fallen on civilian areas within Israel and was therefore intercepted by an Arrow 2 missile. The loud explosion which was heard as far as Jerusalem and the missile parts that fell in Jordan meant that some explanation had to be given. But a statement on the missile intercept would have been sufficient. The decision to take responsibility for the attacks as well would have been made by the prime minister and may have been made for other reasons.
Exactly a week before the attacks, Netanyahu was in Moscow discussing Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Few details have emerged regarding what was said in the meeting but Netanyahu said before and after that he made it clear that Israel would not agree to Iranian military presence in Syria, or that of Iran’s proxies, now that the civil war in the country seems to be winding down and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rule has been preserved.
Whether or not this demand was met with a receptive audience, Netanyahu returned to Jerusalem with the impression that Putin takes Israel’s concerns seriously. An attack carried out by Israeli warplanes flying over Syria (and not using standoff missiles from afar as happened in other strikes recently) may be an indication that there is an understanding with Russia over Israeli operations within the area that Russia protects with its own air-defense systems.
Friday's strikes resemble closely the pattern of the attack in December 2015 on a Damascus suburb in which nine operatives working for Iran were killed, including Samir Kuntar, the murderer of an Israeli family who had been released by Israel in a prisoner exchange in 2008 and was believed to be planning new cross-border raids. That strike took place just three days after Netanyahu and Putin had spoken by telephone and was the first to be carried out after Russia had placed an air-defense shield over large areas of Syria, including its capital.
It was unlikely then, back in December 2015 and on Friday, that Israel would have attacked in Syria, within Russia’s zone of operations, if it thought the Kremlin would react with anger. The fact that it was the Syrian army which launched a missile against Israel’s warplanes, while there are much more advanced Russian air-defense systems deployed nearby, ostensibly to protect the regime, could also indicate that Assad and his Russian protectors are not fully coordinated. Assad is aware that Putin is discussing his country’s future with other world leaders, including Netanyahu. His belated attempt to shoot down Israeli planes could be a sign of frustration at his impotence to control both his destiny and his airspace.
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