A Message to Russia

Israel’s latest attack on Syria was a response to Putin’s snub to Netanyahu. Will Moscow let it go unpunished?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Thursday’s Israeli air raid on a military research facility near Masyaf in Syria’s Hama province, in which seven people were killed, was not so much an embarrassment to the Syrian government as to its Russian allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was given short shrift by President Vladimir Putin last month when he berated him over the presence of Iranian forces in southern Syria, especially in Quneitra and Deraa near the occupied Golan Heights, and demanding that Russia take action to ensure their immediate removal. Thursday’s attack appears to have been his response to that snub, delivered in highly provocative and defiant fashion.

This view was reinforced by Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Israel has carried out more than 100 air raids against Syria in recent years and has a policy of not commenting on them. But on this occasion for the first time Lieberman boasted that Israeli warplanes were responsible for the attack, while affirming that his government will never allow anyone to cross the ‘red lines’ Israel sets in Syria to uphold its security.

Israeli analysts have also depicted the attack as revenge for the secret visit paid to Syria by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The visit followed the successful join operation by Syrian and Hezbollah forces which cleared the Lebanese-Syrian border area of Islamic State (IS) fighters – a visit the US tried to sabotage by preventing the evacuation of IS fighters and their families to eastern Syria. Nasrallah and Asad discussed future military collaboration, reportedly including further operations against Israeli-backed armed groups in the south and the co-production of missiles.

The facility targeted on Thursday – which is said to have been struck by planes overflying Lebanese airspace — was believed to be involved in the development and production of high-precision surface-to-surface missiles, some of which had been transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is too early to gauge the reaction of the Russian leadership to this provocation. It has yet to comment on the incident at this writing.  But it provided a stark illustration of the failure of the Russia air defence systems deployed in Syria to prevent such an attack – for reasons that have yet to be explained —  and the ability of Israeli warplanes to operate with impunity against the country despite the presence of Russian bases.

The timing of the attack was significant in two respects. It came on the tenth anniversary of Israel’s destruction of the new nuclear reactor Syria was building at Deir az-Zour, and a time when Syria and Russia have been celebrating their major achievement in breaking the siege of Deir az-Zour and recovering some two thirds of the surrounding area, which is strategically located near the borders with Iraq and Jordan and rich in oil and gas.

Will the Russian leadership respond to this Israeli aggression directly by shooting down intruding Israeli warplanes in order to restore the deterrent power of its formidable air defense systems? Or could it respond indirectly by supply Syrian forces with sophisticated S-300 or S-400 to enable them to defend themselves?

We have no answers to these legitimate questions. But with Israel clearly endeavouring to prevent Syria from being stabilized, the war from being ended and the government from recovering control, it is certainly not in Russia’s interest to allow such blatant aggression to go unpunished.