What has been done up to now with a degree of ambiguity, not to say discretion, is now being done for all to see. Syria confirmed on Thursday, in a report from its official news agency, that the Israeli airforce struck a military compound next to the Damascus airport before dawn.
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Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz implicitly acknowledged Israeli responsibility for the strike when he explained in a somewhat sleepy radio interview from the United States on Army Radio that “the incident totally fits with our policy for preventing weapons transfers to Hezbollah.” And all of this happened while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was away on a visit to Russia, the chief sponsor of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Katz’s comments followed an earlier, first acknowledgement of its kind by Israel, after numerous reports in the Arab media of an Israeli airstrike in Syria in late March. And this past Tuesday, a senior Israel Defense Forces officer told journalists that about a hundred missiles, some intended for Hezbollah, were destroyed in that March airstrike. But it is still not certain that a deliberate decision has been made to abandon the policy of ambiguity that Israel has adhered to for the past five years, neither denying nor confirming its responsibility for such air strikes.
This policy of ambiguity seems to be based on the idea that Israel’s refusal to comment on these strikes makes them less of an embarrassment for the regime and thus does not whet the Syrians’ appetite for revenge as much. The recent deviations from this policy were likely random occurrences and not the product of long-range strategic thinking.
The initial reports from Damascus did not specify what types of weaponry was hit. Arab intelligence sources (quoted by an Amman-based reporter for Reuters) claimed that the targets this time were arms shipments from Iran being smuggled on civilian commercial flights via the international airport in Damascus.
Syrian reports denied that Israeli planes had penetrated Syrian airspace, and claimed their bombs were launched from within Israeli territory. This could explain the lack of an antiaircraft missile response from the Syrian and Russian air defenses, although Russian radar in northwest Syria can also identify aircraft movements in much of Israel.
Why isn’t Russia taking action? After the March airstrike, Russia reportedly protested to Israel that the Syrian target in the Palmyra area came too close to a Russian military base. Possibly, Russia doesn’t really care that much, as long as these actions don’t directly threaten the Assad regime’s survival. Most of the Russian troops and aircraft are in the northwest, in the area of Tartus and Latakia, and hardly Israeli strikes have been reported in that area since the start of the Russian military deployment in September 2015.
On the tactical level, Russia and Israel seem to be getting along quite well amid the general Syrian chaos. The military coordination mechanism for preventing aerial clashes between the two countries is working properly and Israeli officials, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have held frequent consultations with their Russian counterparts. But on the long-term, strategic level, Israel has a problem: Russia’s military success in the war means the salvation of the Assad regime and a gain for Assad’s other allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Should Russia decide to promote the interests of these other members of the Assad alliance, it could come at Israel’s expense.
In his talks in Russia, Lieberman has been emphasizing the new red line drawn by Israel: no Iranian or Hezbollah military presence near the Syrian border on the Golan Heights. As Assad’s forces have advanced southward, there have been initial reports of the arrival of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and related Shi'ite and Palestinian militias in the border area, mainly in the northern Golan Heights. Besides the arms smuggling, this is the matter of greatest concern for Israel right now. Should it decide to take action to enforce its stance, as Lieberman has spoken about, Israel will have to weigh the possibility not only of heightened friction with Iran, but also of a shift in relations with Moscow.