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Israeli Airstrikes in Syria Shake Up Detente With Russia

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Russian soldiers walk along the side of a road across from a U.S. military in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province, 2020.
Russian soldiers walk along the side of a road across from a U.S. military in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province, 2020.Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Russia’s claim that its aerial defense systems disrupted an Israeli attack, and that it has discussed its criticisms of Israel’s behavior with Washington, surprised the Israeli defense establishment over the weekend.

Some of the Russian reports appear to be inaccurate. But the very fact that Moscow chose to make such statements indicates how unhappy it is with Israel, following a long period of quiet in the bilateral relationship.

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Last week, Israel reportedly conducted three airstrikes in central and northern Syria, all relatively close to places where Russia has a military presence. Arab media reported that a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was killed, and possibly a Hezbollah operative as well.

On Saturday, a Russian general said his forces were helping Syria thwart Israeli attacks, and that Russian aerial defense systems had shot down missiles launched from Israeli jets at a target near Homs on Thursday night. The newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat said Moscow had voiced concern to Washington over the increasing number of Israeli attacks and that Washington was also concerned.

It’s still hard to determine the real facts. In line with the policy of ambiguity that Israel has adopted surrounding most of its attacks in Syria, the defense establishment hasn’t commented directly on the credibility of Russia’s claims.

Nevertheless, Israel isn’t aware of any Russian-American dialogue on this issue or of any U.S. discomfort with the latest attacks. The official Russian statement was apparently meant to emphasize two things: Moscow’s concern over attacks near its own areas of interest in Syria, and its commitment to helping the Syrian regime defend itself.

Israel underwent a severe crisis with Russia in September 2018, when a Syrian anti-aircraft system downed a Russian plane with 15 Russian soldiers aboard while responding to an Israeli strike near Latakia. Moscow blamed Jerusalem and remained critical of its conduct in Syria for a long time.

Eventually, the relationship was repaired, with great effort. But the latest statements indicate renewed Russian discontent over Syria.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to seize the opportunity. In a press statement, his Likud party blamed the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government for Russia’s reported efforts “to limit the IDF’s freedom of action in Syrian airspace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow, 2020. Credit: Maxim Shemetov/Pool Photo via AP

“We maintained freedom of action in Syria thanks to Netanyahu’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin,” the statement continued. “If these reports are accurate, this failed government has lost another vital strategic asset that Israel enjoyed under the Netanyahu government.”

You can’t expect Netanyahu to act responsibly or display any solidarity with his successor on sensitive security issues. It was predictable that he would jump on any opportunity to embarrass the new government.

But in reality, only time will tell to what extent Russia’s unhappiness is limiting Israel’s actions in Syria. If there is now a prolonged lull in such attacks, it might stem from Russia’s recent statements.

Mystery rockets from Lebanon

Israel still doesn’t know for certain who was behind last week’s launch of Katyusha rockets from Lebanon at the western Galilee. One rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome antimissile system and the other landed in the Mediterranean Sea.

The immediate suspects were Palestinian organizations in southern Lebanon. But what’s interesting is that this time, it’s not clear whether Hezbollah was in the picture at all. In the past, Israel has generally claimed that anything that happened in south Lebanon, and certainly any action against Israel, had required prior approval from Hezbollah.

Yet as far as Israel knows, this launch – the fourth such incident since May, when rockets were fired from Lebanon three times during the Gaza-Israel war – apparently wasn’t approved by Hezbollah. This may reflect how anarchic Lebanon has become now that the government has virtually ceased functioning amid a worsening economic crisis.

Lebanese army soldiers deploy at the Lebanese side of the Lebanese-Israeli border in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Over the short term, the army doesn’t see any clear indications that this situation will lead to an escalation against Israel. Hezbollah has different priorities right now; it’s focused on protecting its interests and seeing to its people’s most basic needs. But the fear is that this instability could give rise to unexpected developments that could affect events along the border.

Moreover, there’s a possibility that Lebanon’s domestic unrest could serve Hezbollah's interests, both because it could receive shipments of oil and food from Iran for the country’s Shi’ite population, and because it could exploit the anarchy to continue upgrading its arsenal without any oversight or constraints.

Thus, Israel perceives Lebanon’s domestic situation as a possible source of trouble in the future, but not necessarily as an immediate one.

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