IAF fighter jets during the Red Flag joint exercise at Nellis air force base in Nevada .
(photo credit: COURTESY IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman unleashed a surprise on Wednesday afternoon, when he spoke openly and in detail about Israel’s air strike policy vis-a-vis Syria to ambassadors from the European Union, offering new information and breaking with Israel’s characteristic silence on the matter.
Liberman’s remarks follow an attack against a Syrian air base near Damascus before dawn on Wednesday. Syria’s official news agency quoted Syrian military sources as saying that Israel had fired missiles from the Golan Heights toward the base. Earlier, Arab media reported that Israel’s air force had been responsible for the attack.
As usual, Israel did not respond to the reports – neither denying nor confirming them.
If the attack was indeed carried out using surface-to-surface missiles, there is another matter at stake here. It is true that in the past Israel has responded to errant and directed mortar fire into its territory by firing missiles against Syrian military posts near the border.
There was once even a report, in the foreign press, that an Israeli missile had penetrated a Damascus-area hideout and killed Samir Kuntar, a Palestinian terrorist turned-Hezbollah terrorist who murdered the Haran family in Nahariya in 1979.
But at that point, it wasn’t clear whether the Israeli missile had been launched from an aircraft or from the ground. During today’s strike, Syrians claim that it was a ground-based missile, fired from dozens of kilometers away.
During a meeting with envoys of European Union states, Liberman emphasized Israel’s principled stance, reiterating that it has no interest in intervening in the civil war in Syria. He said Israel got involved only when necessary to preserve its security interests, and to prevent the flow of advanced weapons from Syria (some belonging to Bashar Assad’s army, some originating in Iran) to Hezbollah.
Israeli sources have said in the past that Israel is particularly concerned about the transfer of Yakhont anti-ship missiles, air defense systems (batteries, missiles and radars) for surface- to-surface missiles. This is the same line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Liberman’s predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, have taken.
But Liberman added a fine tuning to the Israeli position. He also said that Israel acts to prevent transfer of WMDs from Syria. As far as is known, it is the first time that a senior Israeli official expressed such a concern.
Syria agreed three years ago to dismantle its huge arsenal of chemical weapons. The deal was brokered by Russia to prevent US bombing against the regime. Since then, Israel intelligence estimates that 92% of Syrian’s chemical weapons were destroyed, according to foreign reports, and that what is left in the hands of the regime is a “residual” capability.
Maybe Liberman was referring to this. It is hard to believe that Syria has been transferring biological weapons or uranium and other nuclear materials, leftovers from its nuclear program that was destroyed by an IAF attack in 2007 against its nuclear reactor under construction.
But such possibilities should not be completely written off.
Regardless, Wednesday’s attack was the second of its kind in the Damascus vicinity attributed to Israel in the last 10 days. There was another attack around the same time which Israel claimed responsibility for, against an ISIS position near the Golan border.
Even with limited information, some conclusions can be drawn.
First, Israel maintains operational freedom in Syria despite the massive presence of Russian forces in the country and the fact that Russia’s air defense systems – the S-300 and S-400 – cover the entire State of Israel. Second, using surface-to-surface missiles makes sense, since this way, Israel would avoid a clash with the Russian forces. This reduces the risk of unwanted friction with Russian planes and aerial defense systems.
Russia hasn’t reacted officially to the report, which can lead to the assumption that the tacit understanding between the two countries, in which they acknowledge and understand the vital interests of each other, is being upheld. Yet Israel shouldn’t forget that attacks against Hezbollah are indirectly undermining the Syrian regime and its Russia patron.
It is also interesting to note that, despite the level of coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow, Israel doesn’t share Putin’s vision for Syria’s future.
Liberman said that Israel thinks that neither Assad nor its Iranian ally can be part of the solution and part of a diplomatic deal to resolve the crisis in Syria. Liberman believes that both have to go for Syria to be free.
That might be wishful thinking, considering the recent consolidation of Bashar Assad’s power.