(photo credit: REUTERS)
Thursday night’s air strike by the US against a Syrian air base, just hours after Defense Secretary James Mattis presented military options to President Donald Trump, was praised by Western and Arab leaders as well by Israel.
The attack marked a substantial escalation by the US in the Syrian conflict, signaling the return of American power in the Middle East and challenging the Assad regime’s most powerful backer, Russia.
While Washington began carrying out air strikes in Syria against Islamic State and other terrorist in September 2014, Friday marked the first direct military action against Syrian government forces.
Trump told reporters that “years of previous attempts at changing Bashar Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically.”
And while the US is said to have warned Moscow ahead of time – they did not deploy their S-300 or S-400 missile defense systems during the strike – the Kremlin released a statement saying that the attack inflicted “considerable damage” to already “lamentable” US-Russia ties.
In response, Russia – which Washington accused of being complicit in the deadly Khan Sheikhoun attack that killed more than 80 civilians – suspended contacts that had ensured the two countries would avoid mid-air incidents between their aircraft in the skies over Syria. Moscow also said that, following the American strike, Syria’s air defenses would be “strengthened.”
But according to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, “the Russians do not want to be in direct conflict with the Americans. To use their missile defense systems against American systems is a decision which is made in Moscow and it obvious that the decision was made not to do so” on Friday morning.
Moscow had threatened to suspend its deal with Washington in October following a deadly US air strike on Assad forces near Deir el-Zour that killed 60 regime soldiers, a strike which the US said was a mistake. At the time, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.- Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that any US strikes on regime-controlled territory could jeopardize the lives of Russian servicemen, warning Washington “to carefully weigh possible consequences of the fulfillment of such plans.”
Israel has a similar arrangement with Moscow in order to avoid accidental clashes. And while the suspension of the US-Russia deal is a significant move, according to Amidror, it will not have any affect on the Russian-Israel mechanism.
“They are totally different,” Amidror told The Jerusalem Post. “Israel is not bombing Assad regime facilities except when Hezbollah uses them to transfer weapons systems,” he said, unlike the Americans who carry out strikes in areas where Russian planes are also flying.
Nonetheless, “Israel should be more sensitive” when carrying out strikes in Syria, Amidror said, as “the whole situation is more volatile now.” He stressed that being sensitive to the situation does not mean to stop carrying out strikes when warranted.
Israel is reported to have carried out several air strikes against the transfer of advanced weaponry from the Assad regime to Hezbollah, including the transfer of chemical weapons in December.
Just recently the most serious clash between the two countries occurred following the interception of a S-200 surface- to-air missile fired by Syria at Israeli warplanes.
Following that clash, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to destroy all of Syria’s missile-defense batteries and Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said that Russia had sent a clear message to Israel that its freedom to act in Syrian skies is over – comments denied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu expressed his support for the strikes on Friday, saying that “in both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated,” adding that he hopes that the message sent by Trump would “resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.”
The IDF said that Israel’s military had been briefed in advance of the strikes and expressed their support. Liberman called the strike an “important, necessary and moral message of the free world led by the United States, that it will not tolerate the war crimes of Bashar Assad’s regime of terror against innocent civilians, and that these atrocities must be stopped.”
The fact that the Americans told Israel before the attack in Syria “is yet another proof of the strength of relations and the depth of the connection between Israel and our great ally the United States,” Liberman added.
But despite all the praise for the strikes, the skies over Syria have just become much more dangerous. While it may be a one-off, with Commander-in-Chief Trump flexing America’s muscles in the Middle East in response to Khan Sheikhoun, Russian President Vladimir Putin might now decide to test how much leverage he truly has in the region.
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