Syrian Civil War Series. Part III: Time To Move On To Bigger Things

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Israel came out from the shadows making explicit their offensive, defensive and surveillance arsenal and openly presenting their pieces on the chessboard in a double game: attacking Hezbollah and sending a message to the Kremlin… and Russia could strike back next time.

Israel Jet
Israeli jet responsible for Palmyra bombing.

Between the night of Thursday 16 and the morning of Friday 17 on March 2017, Israeli warplanes bombed targets near Palmira in Syria, apparently to destroy armament of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. On Sunday that week, another air strike killed the commander of a militia loyal to the Syrian government in the Golan Heights and that same night there was a bombing which target is unclear, although Israel says it was a convoy of arms going to Lebanon. On Tuesday 21, planes attacked Syrian army targets near Damascus, without being informed of casualties.

This spate of attacks sparked concerns about a possible Israeli military escalation in Syria, which would obviously have serious consequences throughout the region. In addition, it occurs at a special time, when the tide seems to have turned in favor of the Syrian government or at least clearly against ISIL jihadists.

However, more than an escalation, it seems a modus operandi. At the end of November 2016, there was also a series of separate attacks on consecutive days, with targets similar to the current ones: an ISIL post in the Golan Heights, a warehouse (allegedly weapons) and an apparently Hezbollah convoy.

The truth is that Israeli attacks on Syrian soil are nothing new, even before the civil war sprouted.

And if the attacks themselves are not novelty, neither would be the main motivation: the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, whose military branch is a recognized actor in the Syrian civil war, together with its allies and patrons in Iran.

Hezbollah militia.

Hezbollah In The Sight

Hezbollah is widely regarded as the only military force capable of causing serious problems to Israel. Undoubtedly, they are responsible for the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and they were their opponent in the 2006 war, which supporters of the Shiite group don’t hesitate to consider a victory despite heavy losses and destruction in Lebanon.

For this reason, the militia is a priority objective in the Israeli strategy.

One of the problems of the Syrian government in the current war is their lack of troops. It simply doesn’t have enough forces to recover all the territory lost to the rebels, so they have to withdraw units from one zone to attack another. In that scenario, it is not unusual for Hezbollah to come to the aid of their ally, bringing their well-trained and armed guerrillas, both for combat operations and for the training of Syrian paramilitary forces.

Each day there are around 1,500 – 2,000 group fighters in Syria, a sustained effort based on rotations to get all their troops and volunteers to gain combat experience. By 2015, Israel estimated that this effort had taken a huge toll: 2,000 militiamen killed and 5,000 wounded.

The sole fact that Hezbollah is being transformed into an army of veterans would be enough to worry Israel. But there’s also the growing importance of the group within Lebanon and its improved coordination with Iranian military on the battlefield.

But there is another important factor: its equipment.

After the war of 2006, one of the elements highlighted by Israel was that Hezbollah had lost much of its weapons and especially missiles that threatened the Israeli territory. Since then, Israel has tried to keep that arsenal as low as possible, preventing or at least hampering the rearmament, which always used the same route: weapons enter from Iran to Syria and then they are taken to Lebanon, with a High probability of being destroyed along the way thanks to Israeli intelligence on such shipments.

The Syrian war has allowed a small variation in this scheme, since the weapons are delivered directly to the combatants in Syria, where it’s impossible to know if they will be used immediately or transferred to Lebanon. In general, the Israeli attacks in Syria have been precisely to destroy “advanced” arsenals destined to Hezbollah (for example, new missiles). And they have multiplied because there are now more opportunities for such deliveries.

The targets of March follow a pattern. In the case of Palmira, for example, it is rumored that, just as loyal forces recaptured the city on the first week of March, Iran and Hezbollah tried to set up a base to receive those advanced weapons by air. With the attack, Israel ended the attempt to open the new route and at the same time warned that not even that location, in the geographical center of Syria, is beyond the reach of its military and intelligence apparatus.

Pantsir S1.jpg
Pantsir S1, Russian anti-aircraft unit.

Russia On The Watch

Under this viewpoint, we could argue that recent attacks are part of the routine for Israel, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria: more “fighting” in the ongoing war between Israel and Hezbollah.

But there’s another reason to sound the alarms, and that is the reaction of an important actor, for which what happened is neither routine nor acceptable: Russia.

Syria’s airspace sovereignty may remain in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad, but its effective control is Russian’s. President Vladimir Putin made sure that everyone knew this to coordinate any flight in the zone and thus avoiding any “accident.” Even the United States “notifies” (or they should) when their planes are going to enter Syrian space.

One such agreement also exists with Israel, but all indications are that -once again- recent attacks were made without any prior warning to Russia. It is a blow to Russian pride and even to its power, since there are no indications that Russian anti-aircraft defenses managed by the Syrian government were activated. And the Russians themselves are in Syria operating their Pantsir-S1 (or SA-22, according to NATO) system, which their propaganda calls the best in the world and which has had relative successful sales.

It is probable that the Russians would restrain to intervene and also that the attacking aircraft followed a path that kept them away from the operational systems, which does not cover the entire territory of Syria. Officially, only Syrian S-200 (also Russian) missile systems responded, which were unable to knock down any of the incoming missiles. Even so, it is bad propaganda for the Russian arms industry.

And it’s also bad news for the Israelis, whose planes are not accustomed to anti-aircraft missiles in their incursions. Before, there had been only one similar case last September, when there was also talk of an escalation and even the beginning of World War III.

It’s clear that, with Russia behind, Syria no longer assumes the role of victim without fighting. Of course it did not launch S-400 missiles, the more advanced ones they have and whose use surely Russia has not authorized. Putin will not fall into the trap of provocations… yet.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu To The Spotlight

The timing of the attacks seems important. It would indicate that, against the Russian restraint of a response (own and Syrian’s), Israel plays the card of provocation.

Russia-Israel coordination had an important milestone just a couple of weeks ago, when Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu visited Putin in Moscow and debated the point. Of course days later, in China, Netanyahu said that there was no veto and that he had made it clear to the Russian president that “if there is feasibility from a military and intelligence point of view, we do attack [in Syria] and this will continue to happen.”

It seems that the message wasn’t clear to Moscow, who on Monday 20 summoned the Israeli ambassador to give explanations specifically for the attack in Palmyra. That had never happened before. And, according to the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, the meeting included a warning that such behavior will no longer be tolerated: “Israelis will now think a million times before doing such a thing again,” he said.

Two days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave hints of distrust of Netanyahu when he declared “we will judge by deeds and not statements in order to figure out if our Israeli counterparts abide by these agreements.”

To continue the verbal conflict, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned that if the Syrian anti-aircraft defense shots again at their aircrafts “we will destroy it without the slightest hesitation.” Hours later, an Israeli mini-drone of surveillance was shot down in the Golan Heights.

Russian versions of the meeting between Putin and Netanyahu claim that the Russian president was hard on his guest, to the point of requesting that he stopped manipulating the story to sustain his bellicose rhetoric against Iran. Putin also would’ve rejected Israeli intentions to secure support for the formal annexation of the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1981, although no country has recognized this action. Netanyahu used his influence over Donald Trump to get a promise that the United States will finally promote international recognition, so they also hoped for Russian support in return for not creating problems in Syria. It became clear that Putin does not agree with Trump on this matter.

So it is not a wild idea that the attacks were a message to the Russian leader, to make clear that Israel does not accept anyone’s rules and makes its own game.

If so, Lavrov should already have a judgment on Israel and Netanyahu, based on their actions and their statements.