In the past two years, Israeli attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah bases and arms transports in Syria have become almost routine. International media reported an alleged Israeli missile strike in Syria near Damascus on November 29, 2018. It is suspected to have hit an Iranian arms depot, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). But this attack came as strong tensions rise between Russia and Israel over Israeli actions in Syria.
Syrian state media, citing a government military source, avoided to name any country by reporting that Syrian air defenses had faced “enemy targets”, while an Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on the reported strikes. SOHR reported that the strikes “targeted warehouses and weapons depots in Jabal al-Mania in the south of Rif Dimashq, which belong to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah […] in which missiles were temporarily stored before being transported to their destination”. According to Middle East Eye, Russia’s RIA news agency had earlier reported that Syrian air defenses had shot down an Israeli war plane and four missiles, but the same source later denied this and Israel’s military said the report of the plane being shot down was “bogus”.
Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have been supporting Bashar al-Assad‘s regime in the Syrian war, and Iran is a long-term enemy of Israel, which is feeling threatened by alleged Iranian nuclear weapons. Russia is also allied to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which it has been defending on the ground since 2015 by helping to regain territories taken by Syrian rebels.
Israel is worried about Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Syria because they happen at its border.s Israel has set up tanks and heavy guns near its border with Syria, especially after the Syrian regime regained the area of Daraa, an opposition stronghold that has brought Syrian forces close to the Israeli-held section of the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights were seized from Syria in 1967 during the Six days war between the Israeli and the Arabs.
Israeli concerns are also amplified by the current situation of its two enemies regarding weapons. David Kenner, a journalist based in Beirut, wrote on The Atlantic in July 2018 that: “Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, have obtained advanced missiles that are designed to exploit those weaknesses. For Israeli security officials, the nightmare scenario is that these weapons may become accurate enough to hit Israel’s civilian and military infrastructure, paralyzing daily life in the country. The threat they pose has already drawn Israel deeper into the Syrian conflict, and promises to fundamentally alter the next war with Hezbollah—a war that could come sooner than expected.”
At the beginning of October, Russia equipped Syrian air forces with the S-300 missiles system, including four launchers, locators and control vehicles, after blaming Israel for the death of 15 Russian soldiers during an air strike targeting a Russian plane. Russia’s new S-300s will replace older systems that have a poor track record of defending Syria against airstrikes of any kind.
In reaction, Israel, which insists Syria’s military was to blame in the case of the shot down plane, has warned that giving the S-300 to “irresponsible actors” would make the highly volatile region even more dangerous, while US national security adviser John Bolton has said that Russia’s decision to deliver the S-300s would cause “a significant escalation” in Syria’s civil war. Both Russia and Israel have said they would continue on fighting in Syria. Following this, Russia demanded that the Israeli army increases its use of “hotline” mechanisms to prevent friction, strengthening their stance against the Hebrew state.
For Ofer Zalzberg, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for the Middle East, the situation reveals the “stale crisis between Russia and Israel over Israeli military activities in Syria”. “Fundamentally, Moscow is trying to stabilize Syria for al-Assad to control the country”, Zalzberg told Fanack Chronicle.
“Israeli actions are destabilizing the country, making it harder to promote Syria in order to attract foreign investments and for Syrian refugees to return. The priority for Moscow is Syria but for Israel, it’s the Iranian presence in Syria. They want to push it out of the country.”
Currently, Israel is taking advantage of the US sanctions on Iran, with a ban targeting oil exports, shipping and banks, three sectors which are core parts of the Iranian economy. “We are working diligently to make sure we support the Iranian people and that we direct our activity towards ensuring that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s malign behavior is changed”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News in early November. It’s in Israel’s interest to keep the attention of the US focused on Iran and to have its enemy weakened as much as possible.
According to global strategic analyst Reva Goujon: “If Israel is to seize its opportunity to weaken Iran, which also entails taking on more risk, then it needs to do so in a way that keeps the United States engaged. The heightened pace of strikes in Syria recently was the crescendo building to the dramatic US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Iran works to avoid retaliatory actions that could drive Europe closer to the US position on sanctions, Israel is taking advantage of Tehran’s relative restraint to scale up its attacks.”
The presence of Russian forces dispersed across Syria’s main conflict zones is a real issue for Israel, which is trying to target Syrian and Iranian assets without creating an international incident with Moscow. “We need to know if these anti-airplane missiles will be operated by Russian forces”, Zalzberg said to Fanack Chronicle. “It’s possible for Israel to destroy these defenses. If Israel wants to avoid hitting Russian forces, it will be harder.” And indeed, Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reported that three air defense systems supplied to Syria were of the most advanced model of the S-300 missiles, with the highest radar and target-identification capabilities. The missiles’ batteries will initially be operated by Russian experts as the process of training Syrian soldiers to operate them is expected to take some time.
For Zalzberg, two situations are opposing themselves: “Israel is with the US, trying to push Iran coercively out of Syria, but doesn’t want to engage with Russia. Meanwhile, al-Assad needs the support of Iran and the Shia militias it brought in from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, but is also afraid Israel will increase its military activities.”
An agreement to limit the influence of Iran in Syria could be the key for pacifying the current situation. However, an increase of strong reactions from Russia towards Israel, like continuing to limit Israel’s possibility of military actions in Syria, could lead Syria to become the theatre of a strength show that the country doesn’t need if it wants to keep its relative stability.