On October 16, Syrian anti-aircraft units fired a SAM-5 anti-aircraft missile at Israeli planes conducting a reconnaissance mission over Lebanon. Israel frequently conducts these types of intelligence gathering operations over Lebanon to keep tabs on Hezbollah. The missile missed and all Israeli planes returned safely back to base. Shortly thereafter, Israel retaliated transforming the missile battery, located approximately 50 kilometers east of Damascus, into an expensive heap of scrap metal. Following the Israeli strike, an Israel Defense Force spokesman stated that Israel “hold[s] the Syrian regime responsible for the anti-aircraft fire and any attack originating from Syria.”
This isn’t the first time that the Syrians launched anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli fighter planes. In March, Israel intercepted and destroyed a Syrian SAM-5 missile with an Arrow anti-missile system. The Syrians had fired the missile during an Israeli air raid on a Syrian airbase known as T4 near the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which was believed to be housing Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah. While the missile missed, Israeli radar operators who were tracking its flight path feared that the missile, with its 478lb warhead would land in Israeli territory prompting the commander on the scene to order a launch.
These clashes underscore the volatile nature of the existing situation in Syria. With an airbase at Khmeimim, and a naval base in Tartus, and other forces scattered about the country, Russia maintains a formidable military presence in Syria. Israel and Russia maintain cordial relations but a miscalculation by a jittery Russian technician sitting behind a computer screen could trigger a clash between Israeli and Russian forces.
Precisely because of this possible scenario, in 2015 Israel and Russia worked out a de-conflict mechanism designed to prevent accidental mishaps. The two sides routinely conduct high-level political meetings and phone calls to further enhance communication. This week Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, met his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Liberman for high-level consultations. No doubt the two discussed the recent clash. According to the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, the Russian defense minister termed the Israeli operation a “dangerous hostile operation that almost caused a severe crisis.” That characterization is somewhat one-sided given that it was the Syrians who opened fire first.
Israel and Russia had tangled before. In July 1970, following a series of cat and mouse engagements, Israeli Phantom and Mirage aircraft shot down five Soviet MiG-21 fighter planes over the Suez Canal. Of course back then, Israel and the Soviet Union were bitter enemies and both sides were sporting for a fight. The fear today however, centers on accidental mishaps between two formidable powers and how best to avoid them.
The two defense ministers also discussed Iran and its Shia proxy Hezbollah. These two malevolent forces have increasingly played a dominant role in Syria and assisted Russia its campaign to prop up Assad and defeat the anti-Assad insurgent groups. Israel is concerned that Iran and Hezbollah will attempt to open a second front against Israel near the Israeli-held Golan Heights, and has aggressively acted to thwart this effort.
In January 2015, the Israeli Air Force struck a combined Iranian-Hezbollah cell operating near the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, which resulted in the deaths of 12 senior Hezbollah and Iranian operatives. In December 2015, an Israeli strike in Damascus killed Samir Kuntar, a convicted child murderer and Hezbollah operative who was attempting to foment anti-Israel activities along the border. And in March 2017, an Israeli drone liquidated Yasser al-Sayed, a pro-Assad militia commander who was coordinating planned attacks against Israel with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Israel has asked Russia to ensure that neither Iranian nor Hezbollah forces would operate within 40 kilometers of the Israeli border. The Russian defense minister reportedly rejected the Israeli demand but yielded to a request to expand the existing buffer beyond the 10-15 kilometer zone already agreed upon.
While Russia and Iran (and by extension Hezbollah) are allies, their interests are not necessarily congruent in all respects. Russia wants to continue to exert its influence over Syria and maintain its military bases. The Iranians wish to expand their Shia hegemony and confront Israel. It is not in Russia’s interests and serves no Russian purpose to see a clash between Israel and its enemies – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
As such, Russia’s presence in Syria represents a double-edged sword for Israel. On the one hand, it somewhat constrains Israeli military action given the close proximity of Russian forces to Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian forces. An Israeli strike could conceivably cause Russian casualties which in-turn could spark a political crisis. Moreover, Russia’s powerful military intervention in Syria’s civil war likely saved Assad and enabled Iran to maintain a dominant position in Syria.
On the other hand, Russia’s interests in maintaining stability in Syria and good relations with Israel serve to prevent Iran from acting recklessly. The Russians will exert their heavy-handed influence over the Iranians to rein them in and keep them from moving close to the Israeli border.
Meanwhile, while Shoigu was meeting with Liberman, Iran’s top military chief, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, met in Damascus with his Syrian counterpart, Lt.-Gen. Ali Ayoub. The Iranian stated that his nation would not sit idly by while Syria was attacked by the “Zionist regime.” The Iranians are notorious dissemblers and much of what they spew amounts to hot air but their recent assertiveness – a product of political success through the calamitous Iran deal and military successes in Iraq and Syria – is deeply alarming.
Regardless, as it has demonstrated on countless occasions, Israel will continue to act to safeguard its citizens from malign external threats and preserve its security interests.