This week, multiple media reports alleged that the Israeli military was training to destroy Russian-made air defence systems, including the S-300s recently delivered to Syria. The reports followed an expression of hope by the US that Russia would allow Tel Aviv to resume its airstrikes against so-called “Iranian targets” in the Arab Republic.
Moscow’s warnings against renewed Israeli attacks in Syria, as well as an increased Russian interest in events in Lebanon, are worrying developments and there’ a “real danger” of closing the Israel Defence Forces’ “operational window of opportunity” in these countries, Haaretz defence contributor Amos Harel wrote.
In recent years, the observer noted, Tel Aviv “exploited the upheaval in the Arab world to expand its offensive activity,” engaging in “hundreds of airstrikes and special operations” in Syria and Lebanon said to be focused on “preventing Iran from smuggling advanced weaponry to Hezbollah,” and “preventing Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.”
Iran, for the record, has denied that it has a major military presence in Syria, saying that its operations are limited to military advisors assisting Syrian forces in their fight against Islamist extremism.
In any case, following the accidental destruction of a Russian reconnaissance plane by Syrian air defences responding to an Israeli air raid on September 17, which the Russian military blamed on Israeli recklessness, Israeli attacks stopped.
“Whether Russia is truly still angry over the downing of [the Il-20]…during an Israeli airstrike two months ago or is just exploiting it to dictate new strategic rules in the north, the result is the same,” Harel argued, pointing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments Thursday that he had no further plans to meet with his Israeli counterpart anytime soon.
“Russia has made it clear to Israel in many ways that the status quo ante is gone,” Harel noted, hinting that Moscow would no longer allow Tel Aviv to disrupt Russia’s “main project” in Syria: the restoration of Syrian government control over the country and the signing of contracts President Assad “that will protect Moscow’s security and economic interests in the country.”
As evidence, the observer cited the Russian military’s “confrontational attitude” toward Israeli forces in Syria, and a “more aggressive tone” on the emergency hotline between the Russian base at Hmeymim and Israeli Air Force HQ.
After the loss of the Russian aircraft in September, Moscow began the delivery of three battalion sets of S-300 air defence systems to Syria.
In addition, the Russian defence ministry promised to provide Syria with its friend/foe target identification system, along with assistance in the radio-electronic suppression of the satellite navigation, airborne radars and combat communications systems of aircraft attempting to hit non-terrorist targets in Syria.
Russian air defence troops are presently embedded with their Syrian counterparts, engaged in a training operation that will last until at least December.
According to Harel, Russia may challenge Israeli military options in Lebanon, too, with the analyst pointing to what he said was Putin’s “increased interest in events” in that country recently. “In the worst-case scenario, the defensive umbrella – both real and symbolic –that Russia has spread over northwest Syria would be expanded to Lebanon, further complicating Israel’s calculus,” the observer wrote.
Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Lebanon during their talks in October, and again at their meeting on Sunday, with Netanyahu describing the latter discussions as a “short talk” without elaborating.
Ultimately, Harel suggested that “trying to figure out what Putin wants, in Syria and perhaps also in Lebanon,” is infinitely more challenging than “playing chess” with the Hezbollah movement.
“Netanyahu was presumably hinting at this problem, among others, when he spoke about security considerations that he can’t share with the public, at the memorial for Ben-Gurion earlier this week,” the observer speculated.
Netanyahu’s cabinet saw a major shakeup this week after defence minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned, accusing the prime minister of “surrendering to Hamas terror” after Tel Aviv reached a ceasefire with the Palestinians in Gaza on Tuesday. Lieberman’s departure was followed by the resignation of immigration minister Sofa Landver.
During remarks about the Gaza ceasefire at the Ben-Gurion memorial Wednesday, Netanyahu said that “in times of crisis, at a time of fateful decisions regarding security, the public at times cannot be a partner to decisive considerations that must be hidden from the enemy.”
The prime minister’s remarks led to speculation in the Israeli media about what exactly Netanyahu meant.