Russia warns of 'provocation' in Syria, hints at Israeli 'hot heads'

Defense Ministry briefing warns against provocations in south and north Syria and condemns US role in eastern Syria

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November 1, 2018 12:36
3 minute read.
A Syrian rebel fires at forces loyal to Bashar Assad in Idlib, Syria

A Syrian rebel fires at forces loyal to Bashar Assad in Idlib, Syria . (photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)

 
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Russian sources confirmed Thursday that a Defense Ministry briefing warning against “provocations” in Syria was directed towards Israel.

Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov warned Wednesday against “hot heads” provoking Syria and intimated that the S-300 had been deployed to defend against such action. Although Israel wasn’t mentioned, the reference to the S-300 is pointed at Jerusalem.

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The statement, also tweeted by the Russian embassy in Israel, appears to reference the accidental downing by Syria of a Russian IL-20 aircraft in Syria in September following an Israeli air strike, an incident that led to a brief crisis with Moscow.

The wide-ranging Defense Ministry presentation focused on the situation in northern and eastern Syria. Russia claimed that Syrian rebel groups in Idlib may be preparing a “false flag” chemical weapons attack. In mid-September Russia and Turkey signed a deal that prevented a battle in Idlib, and called for extremists to withdraw from a demilitarized zone in the northern province that has been held by Syrian rebels for five years. Turkey is a key backer of some of the rebel groups and has sought to prevent a massive flight of refugees from Idlib. Moscow now said the “Turkistan Islamic Party”, a rebel group, is preparing a “false flag” attack. Russia said the Idlib agreement has gone well so far.

The ministry then turned its attention to southwest Syria on the Golan Heights border, saying “Russian soldiers are monitoring the situation at six observation posts along the line of separation.” It was in this context that Moscow noted that the S-300 had been deployed to Syria. “In order to increase the level of security of the Russian military personnel, aviation flights and the protection of objects in Syria.”

The spokesman then warned “Russian advisers are preparing Syrian military personnel for combat work on these modern air defense systems. We believe it is advisable for ‘hot heads’ to adequately assess the current situation in the region and refrain from provocative actions on the territory of Syria.”

While the statement appears directed at Israel, Moscow did not mention Israel in the briefing. Instead the Defense Ministry said that the US was being irresponsible in “illegally occupying a vast Syrian region,” and was causing a “disastrous humanitarian situation.” Russia was concerned the US was training armed units in Syria and claimed that these included “militants” and “gangs” threatening Syrian civilians. In Raqqa, liberated from Islamic State a year ago by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Russia warned that the city was at a disaster. “In this city, as in other areas controlled by the coalition, anarchy, famine and devastation flourish which, of course, is a breeding ground for the restoration of the activities of terrorists.”

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The statements show Russia is now focusing on three files in Syria, one of which is the situation in southwest Syria and particularly involving the S-300 systems that were sent to Syrian in the wake of the downing of the IL-20 espionage plane. The statement also reveals that the Syrian crews are still training to use the advanced version of the S-300 that Russia sent. The downing of the IL-20, which Russia blamed on Israel’s actions, was due to Syrian air defense crews targeting the wrong aircraft with their S-200. The training of these crews is supposed to prevent that, but it is also supposed to be a message to Israel about further air strikes.

According to a statement in September, Israel carried out 200 air strikes in Syria in the 18 months, mostly against Iranian targets. A statement last year indicated Jerusalem had carried out 100 air strikes between 2012 and 2017. Israel says Iran is building bases in Syria and transferring weapons to Hezbollah, including precision guidance for Hezbollah’s massive arsenal of missiles. Jerusalem has continually warned Iran to leave Syria, demanded its forces be distanced from the Golan border, and cautioned about Iranian support for Hezbollah.

Amid the tensions and as the S-300 crews are trained, Russia hopes cool heads will prevail in Jerusalem and not create a new incident in Syria.

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