While confronting Iran in Syria, Israel may have to defy Russia

Jerusalem has vowed to continue striking cross-border targets, perhaps even sophisticated defense systems manned by Russian troops

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
December 4, 2018 02:28
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they a

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they attend an event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the breakthrough of the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in. (photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)

 
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Russia has completed an elaborate air defense system in Syria that curbs the operational capabilities of both the United States and Israel, according to a report by the Washington- based Institute for the Study of War. The deployments throughout the conflict-ravaged country include variations of the advanced S-300 and S-400 systems in addition to other cutting-edge technologies.

Moscow long ago exported such systems to Syria, however, they remained under the control of its own army. Only after the accidental downing in September by Syrian forces of a Russian reconnaissance plane, an incident the Kremlin blamed on Jerusalem which minutes earlier had approved a strike on a nearby Iranian weapons depot, did President Vladimir Putin green-light the transfer of the S-300 to the Assad regime.

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This has, in the view of many observers, raised the probability of clashes not only since Syrian forces are now better equipped to counter Israeli and American military activities, but also because of the greater potential for unwanted incidents caused by human error or, equally plausible, sheer incompetence.

"The Russians had these systems in Syria even before the downing of the spy plane but they did not use them to prevent Israeli strikes. So the real issue is the possession of the batteries by Assad's forces," Brig. Gen. (res.) Relik Shafir, one of Israel's most decorated Air Force commanders who in 1981 flew in the mission to destroy Iraq's nuclear reactor, explained to The Media Line. "This allows the Syrian army to target missiles or planes, while maintaining the ability to withstand electronic warfare and overcome stealth technology." Nevertheless, news surfaced Thursday of an alleged Israeli strike in Al-Kiswah, located south of the Syrian capital, the likes of which has become increasingly rare amid ongoing tensions with Moscow and given the new strategic environment. For its part, the U.S. has an estimated 3,000 soldiers in Syria that provide support to mainly Kurdish forces in the east.

President Donald Trump also has on two occasions ordered naval forces stationed in the Mediterranean to fire Tomahawk missiles at Syrian facilities in response to Damascus' use of chemical weapons.

Accordingly, analysts believe that both Washington and Jerusalem retain offensive means to circumvent the Russian shield.

"The important element is not the performance of the air defenses but the rules of engagement," Amos Yadlin, former chief of the IDF’s Military Intelligence and presently Director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, contended to The Media Line. "As long as Putin sticks to his policy of not attacking Israeli planes, then the probability of a direct Israel-Russia confrontation is very low. Moreover, Jerusalem has never said it will attack Russian soldiers.

"Yet there are two issues which Moscow is adamant about: namely, that no Russian troops are killed during Israel's targeting of Iranian assets, and that the IDF will not act to overthrow of the Assad regime. As long as these are upheld, I believe the Russians will return to their previous position—that the Iranians are building unnecessary and threatening military infrastructure and thus Israel has a right to deal with it." Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly has vowed to continue targeting Iranian installations in Syria, with other officials intimating that Jerusalem might, if absolutely necessary, destroy anti-missile batteries perhaps manned by Russian soldiers.

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who co-chairs the Israel-Russia Intergovernmental Commission, hinted as much when he echoed the belief that the Syrian army lacks the know-how and skill to use the Russian systems prudently. He warned, therefore, that regime forces could possibly shoot down, inadvertently or otherwise, a military or commercial plane over Israeli territory, which, in turn, would "undoubtedly" lead to a targeted response against the launch site.


“I greatly hope that there would be no Russian military specialists [present],” Elkin stressed.

"The main obstacle is not Russian technology but, rather, the actual physical presence of Russian troops on the ground because it is not in Israel's interest to harm them," Maj. Gen.

(res.) Gershon Hacohen, a former commander of IDF troops in Syria and currently a Researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, related to The Media Line.

"Nonetheless, this poses a major constraint on Israel's decision-making process, which ultimately comes down to risk-management analysis. If the benefit to Israel of taking out a target outweighs the cost of causing Russian casualties and the resulting diplomatic fall-out, then this might be considered. But there is no over-riding policy," he concluded, "as the matter is so serious that it would be discussed on a case-by-case basis and decided on by the prime minister." Prior to his recent resignation, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman publicly rejected a demand by Moscow that Jerusalem provide the Russian military with additional warning before carrying out missions in Syria."We will not accept any restrictions on our freedom of operation, and when it comes to national security we will take action," he asserted, seemingly reinforcing the notion that Russian personnel will not stand in the way of the realization of Israel's objectives.

This defiance is perhaps partially attributable to growing evidence that Russia is not abiding by a tacit agreement to inhibit Iranian-aligned fighters, including members of Hizbullah, from operating within 85 kilometers (50 miles) of the Israeli border. According to Arab media, Shiite forces have been carving out huge swaths of land in the southwest on which to build training bases. It is widely known that Iran has attempted to hide its military presence near the frontier by camouflaging its soldiers and mercenaries in Syrian army uniforms.

When considering the full spectrum and potential ramifications of this emergent reality, it is reasonable to postulate that in order for Israel to uphold its red lines—that is, to impede Tehran's establishment of a permanent military foothold in Syria and from delivering sophisticated weaponry to Hizbullah in Lebanon—the Jewish state may have to defy Russia diplomatically and possibly challenge it militarily.

"Even so, under no circumstances would Israel deliberately target Russian assets, as this would be a grave mistake," former fighter pilot Shafir asserted to The Media Line. "Israel still recognizes Moscow as a friendly force in the region and has a major interest in keeping it that way.

"A problem could occur," he qualified, "if Israel and Iran continue to pursue their [mutually- exclusive] goals in Syria. Following the Russian defense move, it will be difficult to keep their conflict discrete. This raises the stakes and things could erupt." In this eventuality, both Jerusalem and Moscow almost certainly would attempt to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible; that is, should the circumstances permit and unless either party determines that it is necessary to reinforce its position through actions that may carry hefty consequences.

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