Israel has launched countless strikes in Syria. What’s new is Russia’s response


Share Button

Bron: The Guardian

Israel has launched countless strikes in Syria. What’s new is Russia’s response

Once cordial relations are breaking down amid Israeli fears that Moscow is failing to control Iran and its proxies

Russia’s decision to out Israel as being responsible for the attack on a Syrian regime airbase east of Homs marks a breakdown in the previously cordial relations between the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Israel has launched many previous strikes into Syria, mainly to protect its borders from a buildup of Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces and armaments on the Golan Heights. Israel has not, as a rule, attacked al-Qaida or Islamic State positions in Syria.

On all previous occasions, Russia – which has controlled Syrian air space since it sent troops to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2015 – has turned a blind eye. There had been an understanding that Israeli interests in Syria would be preserved by Russia, primarily by limiting the presence of Iranian-backed troops in Syria’s south-west. The Israeli fear is that access to the Syrian side of the Golan Heights allows Hezbollah to launch attacks into Israel.

It has not always been clear how much prior notification of these raids Israel gives Moscow, or how much there is an understanding that Russia will not tip off the Syrian regime. On most occasions, the Pentagon is given prior notice. Israel neither confirms nor denies attacks.

The raid on Sunday night was different in that it was denounced by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, as “a very dangerous development”.

It shows the extent to which Israel has become concerned that Russia is not fulfilling the bargain to control Iran and its military proxies. In recent weeks, Israel has sent out three warning signals: it conducted a military exercise in which Russia operates a multi-front war to prevent an Israeli attack on Syria; it publicly confirmed that it had launched airstrikes in 2007 against a potential nuclear reactor in Syria; and it launched a multi-front air raid in February inside Syria in response to a drone flying into Israel. The latter was described as the biggest attack the Israeli air force had mounted inside Syria since the 1982 Lebanon war.

Israel believes the political alliance between Russia and Iran over Syria’s future is strengthening. And its hope that Iranian forces, by some accounts 80,000 strong, will not have a permanent presence in Syria, especially in the south-west, looks increasingly forlorn.

So Israel’s assault on Sunday night can be read as much as an opportunistic raid seizing on the outrage over the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma to prosecute pre-existing battles rather than to punish the Syrian government.

But Israel is also sending a message to the US president, Donald Trump, by pointing out the consequences for his anti-Iran policy if he goes ahead with his plan to withdraw the remaining 2,000 US troops from Syria. Israel is telling the US that it cannot see the Syrian war solely as a battle to defeat Isis; it must also be seen as a battleground about Iranian expansionism.

Some will argue that the best hope for peace lies in leaving the solution to Tehran and Moscow. The future of Syria will no longer be decided in Geneva under a UN peace process led by Staffan de Mistura, but by Russia, Iran and Turkey through the so-called Astana process.

That was the Iranian view when Russia, Iran and Turkey gathered on 4 April to agree a plan for Syria. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was explicit: “The Americans [and] the Israelis were unsuccessfully trying to get in our way … They wanted to help terrorists so that they could govern the region. And they wanted to make it so that the threat would linger on until the present, as this would be in [their interests]. They create a lot of problems for us … The adversaries of our region planned to ruin Syria, but they are failing.”

Israel’s raid was an attempt to tell Rouhani he will be proved wrong.