Despite Russian Warplanes in the Sky, Israel Keeps Bombing Syria
Tight-lipped coordination enables discreet air strikes
However, operating in the midst of all this is the Israeli Air Force, which continues to uphold a discreet policy of preventing Hezbollah from gaining access to advanced missiles and other weapons — armaments which could hinder the Israeli military’s technological edge in any future war.
Israeli jets have flown interdiction strikes into Syria for this purpose since at least January 2013. “We operate in Syria from time to time to prevent it turning into another front against us. We act, of course, to prevent the transfer of deadly weaponry from Syria to Lebanon,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a rare admission on Dec. 1.
And since the Russian build-up in Syria, Israel has carried out perhaps four substantial air strikes. Three strikes were in the Qalamoun region which spans across Syria’s porous frontier with Lebanon.
On Oct. 31, Israel warplanes struck a weapons convoy and a warehouse in the region. Two more strikes occurred on Nov. 24 and Nov. 29. The targets were unclear, although sources quoted by The Jerusalem Post claim at least 13 Syrian soldiers and allied Hezbollah militiamen died in the Nov. 24 raid.
In mid-November, Syrian state media claimed that Israeli aircraft struck again near Damascus airport. That was certainly not the first time Israeli jets have bombed military-related targets in the Syrian capital. What exactly they were aiming to destroy, however, is not clear.
Incidentally, an anonymous senior Israeli army officer told Reuters that most of Syria’s Scud missile stocks have been used up. He said Israel is keeping a close eye on the missiles and claimed that a few have been transferred to Hezbollah, which he claimed have “around 10.”
Since Hezbollah sent its forces into Syria in the middle of 2013, it has fought earnestly to secure Qalamoun, which serves as a de facto buffer zone between it — a Shia militia — and Sunni militant groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra which have infiltrated Lebanon and attacked Hezbollah positions there in the past.
It’s worth evaluating the strikes in a broader context, especially as the latest come after Russian warplanes began flying air cover for Syrian troops. Since that deployment began two months ago, it was evident the Kremlin was bringing in equipment to deter any outside force which threatened the regime.
Russia set up SA-22 Greyhound air defense missiles at its base in Latakia, and the Kremlin’s air-superiority Su-30 Flanker fighters bolstered a fleet of primarily Sukhoi bombers – which range from older Soviet-era Su-24s and Su-25s to newer multi-role Su-34s.
But the Kremlin doesn’t seem to have a problem with the Israeli raids.
During the build-up, Netanyahu visited Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The outcome — Israel and Russia established a “hotline” to ensure there were no misunderstandings or accidental shootdowns. Israel and Russia have also engaged in joint air exercises to help ward off any mistakes.
Even though Hezbollah is an ally of the Syrian regime, the Kremlin’s official stance is one of recognizing Israel’s concern regarding the militia getting its hands on high-tech armaments. “For Iran, it is vital that the future Syrian political system maintains an anti-Israeli stance and continues to act as a bridge between Tehran and Hezbollah,” analyst Saheb Sadeghi wrote at Al Monitor.
“In contrast, Russia is not concerning itself with these matters and is even outright avoiding them.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli-Russian coordination appears to be working. An intrusion by a Russian jet into Israeli-controlled air space in November was “immediately resolved” without incident, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.