Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) jets have been hitting Syria intermittently, primarily targeting Iranian-connected assets, but also attacking the air-defense installations of president Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) (Haaretz, April 10). Officially, the Israelis proclaim neutrality in the seven-year-long Syrian civil war, but the IDF has an established “de-confliction” agreement with Russia’s military (Kommersant, July 13, 2017). Russian President Vladimir Putin is popular in Israel, seen as an Israeli-friendly leader; and he seems to have a close personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In December 2017, Avi Dichter, a member of Israel’s ruling Likud party and the chairperson of the Knesset (parliament) Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Interfax: “Russia is not an enemy and we [Israel] have no problem with a permanent Russian military presence in Syria.” Dichter, who is also a former director of Shin Bet (internal security service) and a former minister of internal security and home front defense, described Russia as a “superpower and ally” that wants a strategic presence in the Mediterranean, “and we say: Welcome!” (Interfax, December 5, 2017).
The Russian military has angrily denounced as “aggression” the United States–led military actions in Syria—in particular the April 14 missile attack that targeted al-Assad’s facilities connected to chemical weapons usage. Whereas, the intermittent Israeli attacks have been mostly ignored by Russian officialdom and by the state-run propaganda machine. But now this honeymoon seems to be at an end. On April 9, the Russian Ministry of Defense officially and promptly identified the IDF as responsible for attacking the SAA’s T-4 airbase, in Homs province (Militarynews.ru, April 9). Meanwhile, Tehran acknowledged that the alleged IDF attack on T-4 killed seven Iranian elite Revolutionary Guards, including a local commander, and threatened revenge (Newsru.co.il, April 10).
The IDF was not involved in the US-led April 14 missile attack, but the Russian military apparently chose that moment to fundamentally redraw Putin’s strategic partnership with Israel. The Russia military, diplomatic and intelligence services establishment was never happy with the Kremlin forming too close an alliance with Israel, which is seen by the so-called “party of war” in Moscow as an unreliable US proxy that cannot be turned and will always ultimately choose Washington over Moscow. A Middle Eastern strategy based on traditional Cold War–style alliances with anti-Western forces in the region is apparently seen as a better option by the “party of war” than Russia’s present delicate balancing act of simultaneously keeping close relationships with Iran and Israel, Turkey and Greece, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Egypt, and so on.
Following the Western missile strike on al-Assad’s chemical weapons program, the chief of the Russian General Staff’s main operations directorate, Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, announced that Moscow has “fully restored the Syrian [SAA] air-defense system” and will continue to reinforce it. “Several years ago,” continued Rudskoy, Russia agreed with “Western partners” not to sell Syria S-300 anti-aircraft missiles; but now (after the missile attack), “we may reconsider” (TASS, April 14). On April 23, Kommersant reported, quoting unnamed “military-diplomatic sources” that S-300 Favorit missiles may be imminently shipped to Syria to help form a “comprehensive anti-aircraft defense” that will allow the SAA to “fully control the Syrian airspace.” According to Kommersant, the political decision to promptly supply al-Assad with S-300 missiles—announced by Rudskoy and later publicly supported by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov—has already been made, and only logistical and technical details must still be ironed out. A contract to supply al-Assad with four batteries of S-300PMU-2 Favorit missiles was signed in 2010, but later scrapped by Putin, in response to an Israeli request. The S-300PMU-2 batteries made for Syria were eventually sold to Iran. The proposed new shipment of S-300s must come directly from the Russian military stockpile, since S-300PMUs are no longer produced in Russia, where all industrial capacity is engaged in fabricating the new S-400 systems. If S-300 missiles are deployed with the SAA, Russian technicians and military advisors would be deployed with them to help the Syrian military cope with “this new defensive weapon.” Any Israeli attack to destroy the SAA’s long-range S-300 capability “would have catastrophic repercussions,” since Russian personnel could be hit (Kommersant, April 23).
For Israel, the prospect of a “comprehensive” Syrian air-and-missile-defense system deployed and maintained with Russian help is a totally unacceptable outcome because it could provide cover for the deployment of Iranian ballistic missiles able to attack Israeli targets. The IDF will not allow this to happen under any circumstances, even if preventing it may lead to a clash with Russian military personnel. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman promptly announced the IDF would strike the S-300s in Syria, if they are “used against us” (Interfax, April 25). The prospect of the Israeli air force preparing to bomb Russian personnel in Syria in the near future—like what had happened in the 1980s, when over a hundred Russian advisors and specialists were killed or wounded in clashes with the Israelis in Syria and Lebanon—has sent waves of panic throughout the Jewish community in Moscow. During the Cold War, Russian military casualties from fighting with the IDF were kept secret for decades, but nowadays they could be trumpeted by various state TV propaganda outlets. Jewish community leaders fear a terrifying backlash at home, even possible pogroms. A Moscow chief rabbi told this author, on April 23, “This could be the end of the Jewish community in Russia.”
On April 25, the Syrian embassy in Moscow announced the S-300 missiles have already arrived in Syria “a month ago” and been deployed. The Russian authorities responded with a flurry of disclaimers and denials at different levels, claiming “no final decision has been made” and that no S-300s have been delivered. It was announced that a shipment of shorter-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile Pantsir-C batteries were delivered to the Russian base in Tartus, on the Syrian coast, to reinforce the SAA forces. The latter already have around 36 Pantsir-C systems, purchased in 2011. But reportedly, no long-range S-300 have been delivered, to date (Militarynews.ru, April 25). It is unclear whether Putin is, indeed, still contemplating the S-300 shipment, or if S-300s were already delivered. But all the denials could be a cover-up to prevent an immediate IDF strike and give Russian specialists more time to make these air-defenses fully operational on the ground in Syria. The Moscow Jewish community may be overreacting to a threat that will never materialize. Still, the possibility remains all too real, with Tehran and Damascus happy to facilitate a Jewish-Russian confrontation.