Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Sochi, Russia August 23, 2017..
(photo credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)
If Israel did, as widely reported, attack a sensitive Syrian military facility near Masyaf in western Syria early Thursday morning, it is an operation that was weeks or months in planning.
Hitting such a sensitive facility – a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that housed chemical weapons and ground-to-ground missiles – is an operation that requires intense training, precise intelligence, and a go-ahead from the very top of the political pyramid.
It is not something done overnight.
And that all means that when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks ago, this operation was well into the planning stages. The same was true when Mossad head Yossi Cohen and a top security delegation went to Washington just a few days earlier.
Both Washington and Moscow are well aware of Israel’s objections to Iran and Hezbollah ensconcing themselves permanently in Syria after the end of the civil war there. Netanyahu did not need to fly to Sochi to convey that message to Putin, nor Cohen to Washington to present this position to US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Netanyahu and Cohen did not travel to those two capitals to win an argument, but rather to make Israeli interests clear so that – if and when Israel attacked to protect its interests – everyone would understand why it happened and what was at stake and no one would be surprised.
It is reasonable to assume that the type of operation reportedly taken on Thursday came up in the conversations. It was telling that there was no immediate condemnation from Moscow, at least not by Thursday evening.
Washington, also, did not issue any statement.
While the Russians obviously did not approve of Israel’s reported actions, since such a move ultimately weakens the party whom the Russians are trying to strengthen – Syrian President Bashar Assad – their immediate silence could be interpreted as a sign they were not blindsided by the move.
Israel and Russia have a complicated relationship. One senior Russian diplomat said recently that Israel and Russia were “frenemies” in Syria, a combination of friends and enemies.
Friends in the sense that there is a great deal of communication and coordination between the two militaries; enemies in the sense that their interests in Syria are very different. Russia’s interest is that Syrian President Bashar Assad remain in power, even if that means that Iran and Hezbollah gain a foothold in the country. Israel’s interest is that Iran and Hezbollah gain no foothold there.
Jerusalem has made clear that it will not allow game-changing weaponry to be transferred from Syria or Iran to Hezbollah, and will not let Iran or Hezbollah build bases on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights that could be used as launching pads for attacks against Israel. Netanyahu clearly told Putin not only what Israel’s redlines were, but how it would act if they were violated.
Following his meeting with Putin, Netanyahu told reporters that he told the Russian president in “a clear and detailed manner” that Israel would not “remain passive” if its redlines were violated in Syria.
One sentence that Netanyahu said following that meeting takes on a lot more meaning following Thursday morning’s action. He told reporters that Israel wants to prevent a regional war, and that therefore it is important to warn beforehand “of things that could lead to a deterioration of the situation.”
It is very likely that Netanyahu warned Putin of the kind of action that took place Thursday morning. Friends don’t like to be surprised, especially when they have troops who could be in harm’s way.
The Russians never took action against Israel in the past following the dozens of actions Israel has admittedly taken in Syria to enforce its redlines.
Moscow could have taken steps to prevent those actions, but it didn’t – a testament to a strong degree of understanding between Jerusalem and Moscow.
Chances are very good that the Netanyahu-Putin meeting last month ensured this pattern would continue even in the face of more intense Israeli action – the type of action that took place early Thursday.