Syria’s war within the war expected to continue despite downing of Russian plane

Israel says its F-16 fighter jets attacked a facility in northern Syria to prevent “systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons” from being “transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Sunday 23/09/2018
Israelis look across the border to watch warplanes backing a Syrian government offensive carry out air strikes in the Syrian province of Daraa. (AFP)
Clashes ahead. Israelis look across the border to watch warplanes backing a Syrian government offensive carry out air strikes in the Syrian province of Daraa. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Israel could face some limits on its ability to strike Iranian targets in Syria following the downing of a Russian military plane but is unlikely to suffer a crippling setback for its war within the war in the neighbouring country.

To contain the political and military fallout from the September 17 incident over northern Syria, Israel sent its air force chief, Amikam Norkin, to Moscow. He briefed Russian officials on the initial Israeli investigation into the crash in which a Russian IL-20 surveillance plane went down near Latakia. All 15 people on board were killed.

Moscow has been sending mixed messages. On one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin refrained from putting all the blame on Israel, saying the death of the airmen was the result of a chain of tragic circumstances. On the other hand, Russia said Syrian air-defence systems shot the plane down shortly after Israeli jets hit the area and accused Israel of creating the dangerous conditions by failing to give sufficient notice. The Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv spoke of “irresponsible and unfriendly actions” by the Israeli Air Force.

In 2015, the Kremlin put relations with Turkey into the deep freeze for a year after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian military plane on the Syrian border. Russia, however, shows no intention of doing the same with Israel after the loss of the IL-20.

Israel says its F-16 fighter jets attacked a facility in northern Syria to prevent “systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons” from being “transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

The powerful air force of the Jewish state has carried out numerous raids against Iranian targets in Syria in a campaign designed to counter Tehran’s efforts to strengthen military assets close to the Israeli border.

The attacks, which have mostly spared assets of the Syrian government, have been largely ignored by Russia. Moscow and Tel Aviv worked out a communication mechanism to prevent military confrontations following the start of the Russian military engagement in Syria in 2015.

Israel says, while its attack near Latakia did not violate those rules, it is open for improvements. Naftali Bennett, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said “deconfliction mechanisms” would be strengthened.

Israel is not prepared to stop its military campaign against Iran in Syria as such, however. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Army Radio the military would “do whatever is necessary to safeguard the security of Israel’s citizens.”

Russia, whose air force rules the skies over Syria, might restrict the freedom of movement for Israel’s jets. Israeli media reported that Russia closed the air space off the northern Syria coast for a week after the loss of its plane. Israel was hoping Russia would not impose further restrictions, such as making regions around Russian installations in Syria off limits for Israeli air strikes, because that could be exploited by Iran, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

Analysts say Tehran is watching closely for any move to scale back Israel’s ability to strike in Syria. “The Iranians can barely disguise their hope that this incident will be a watershed moment and Moscow will turn on Israel,” Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said via e-mail.

However, Russia, which has developed good relations with Tel Aviv in recent years, is unlikely to risk a confrontation with Israel by introducing overly restrictive rules. “It might limit Israel’s manoeuvring space in Syria but that would not necessarily change the current dynamics,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group in Washington, said in an e-mail.

“Iran is still focused on consolidating the Assad regime,” Vaez added, “and Israel remains steadfast in preventing Iran from entrenching itself in Syria.”

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