Analysis

Israel's Alleged Syria Airstrike Was Attempt to Curtail Iranian Air Power

Kremlin's response appears to reflect anger in Moscow over strike, and puts in perspective the security coordination in the air. Intensification of Israeli involvement may have unexpected consequences

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Ankara, Turkey, April 4, 2018.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP

The attack Israel is reported to have carried out in Syria, during the early hours of Monday morning, badly aggravated tensions on the northern front. It’s reminiscent of that February 10 incident when an Iranian drone was downed, followed by an Israeli F-16 jet, and yet again the Syrian airbase called T-4, east of Homs, found itself at the center of developments.

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According to reports, the casualties of the Israeli raid included Iranian advisers. The fact that all this is going down just as Russia and the U.S. are exchanging threats over the last chemical attack the Assad regime perpetrated on innocents – and Russia openly accuses Israel of bombing the base – just makes the situation all the more sensitive. Compared with the gravity of the developments in the north, the incidents on the Gaza border look relatively minor at the moment.

Officially Israel hasn’t reacted to the accusations that it bombed the base. Its policy is not to comment on attacks it’s reported to have carried out in Syria; it deviated from that pattern only twice in the last six years. If Russia is right in its accusations, however, it is hard to believe that the Israeli mission was designed to punish Assad for using chemical weapons.

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First of all, there’s precious little point in reacting on moral grounds if one doesn’t say so. Secondly, Israel has more pressing interests in Syria and regarding T-4 in particular.

When the Syrian Civil War began seven years ago, Israel drew a line in the sand. It said it would take action to halt convoys carrying weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, if those convoys were transporting advanced weaponry. Since then, dozens of attacks have been reported. Last year Israel added another line in the sand: the prime minister, defense minister and military chief of staff announced that Israel would act to thwart Iran’s establishing its presence in Syria.

Bases belonging to Iran or to the Shi’ite militias associated with it in Syria were bombed several times in recent months. Concurrently, anonymous parties ran a media campaign, featuring leaked maps and photographs, documenting the Iranian sites in Syria to The New York Times and to Fox News. The latest raid may indicate that Tehran didn’t fully get the message.

Speaking to Haaretz before Passover, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot described Iran’s interest in accruing ground, air and sea assets in Syria. Some of these seem to be materializing in existing Syrian army bases. Two months ago, Israel bombed the command center at T-4, from where the Iranian drone had been sent into Israeli territory. Then too, the attack caused Iranian deaths. One may assume that this time too, the raid would have likely caused Iranian casualties.

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The requisite conclusion is that the raid aimed to clip the wings of Iran’s aerial ability in Syria. Nor should the wider context be left out – U.S. President Donald Trump’s intention to vacate American forces from Syria, and the arrangements concluded by the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey at the Ankara summit last week.

The extraordinary Russian decision to openly accuse Israel of the raid reflects Moscow’s anger at the damage done to the interests of a key member of the alliance it’s heading in Syria. The announcement also puts into proportion the mechanism that the Russian and Israeli air forces put into place, to preclude aerial friction in Syria, when Moscow deployed fighter jets there in September 2015.

It is important that Israel and Russia still have a hot line to rapidly neutralize conflicts – former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon even revealed on Army Radio on Sunday that some of the conversations on the line, including with Israeli officers, are conducted in Russian. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two parties are on the same side.

The closeness in time between the chemical slaughter and the raid on the airbase meant the world’s reaction to the bombing was relatively convenient. But that doesn’t seem to have been its main motivation. With its latest steps, Israel, assuming it was responsible, is deepening its military involvement in Syria. Effectively it’s entering the center of the maelstrom, which it had wisely avoided doing for years. The “war between the wars” on which the Israeli army’s operations had centered in recent years, is getting worse.

This could have unanticipated consequences, from the perspective of reactions by Iran and Syria, too (possibly even backed by Russia), and from the perspective of the effect on the man in the White House, who bases his decisions mainly on what he sees on Fox News anyway.

Israel, if indeed it is responsible for the strike, is walking a very fine line, though it must be said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hears fervent support from the professional ranks for the firm, aggressive attitude in Syria. This support was strengthened by the backwind the Iranians received from their strategic allies in the Ankara meet. One may further assume that the latest raid is also based on concrete information that justified the high-profile move against an Iranian target in Syria, in the opinion of the leaders who approved it.