by Ari Lieberman
Israel cautiously watches as Russia tries to reassert itself.
On July 30, 1970 a squadron of Israeli air force F-4E Phantoms and Mirages laden with bombs and missiles took off from their airbase in Sinai and flew westward toward Egypt. Their target was an Egyptian radar station.
The action occurred during the height of the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt. The Egyptians were faring badly and their armed forces had suffered a series of public humiliations at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces. As a consequence, the Soviets stepped into the fray to save their client state and deployed 10,000 military personal and technical experts to the theater. The Soviets also assumed full control of Egypt’s air defenses. Surface-to-air missile batteries were manned by Soviet personnel and Soviet piloted MiG 21Js – the Soviet Union’s latest MiG-21 variant – patrolled Egyptian airspace. A direct clash between the Soviet Union and Israel was inevitable.
As the Israeli fighters zeroed in on their target, 16 Soviet MiGs moved in to intercept. In the melee that followed, five MiGs were shot down for no Israeli losses. The remaining 11 MiGs beat a hasty retreat. The Soviets were simply no match for the seasoned Israeli pilots.
The clash brought regional tensions – already heightened after one year of near constant border clashes – to a boiling point but neither side wanted an escalation. A ceasefire was eventually brokered by the superpowers and tensions deescalated.
Russia’s present military deployment in Syria is not dissimilar to its deployment in Egypt 46 years ago but the chances of an Israeli-Russian aerial clash today is virtually nil. There are some salient differences between the two circumstances. Israel and Russia are no longer bitter enemies and currently maintain cordial relations. Lines of communications between the two nations are good. Potential misunderstandings – to the extent that any exist – are channeled through liaisons to prevent accidental confrontations.
But war can best be summed up as organized chaos and given the clutter over the skies of Syria, with Russian, Israeli, Turkish and Coalition aircraft all operating within the confines of a limited space, mishaps are certainly possible. The Russians maintain formidable air defenses in Syria and Israel views them warily.
Underscoring this, last week IAF fighter jets launched two strikes in Syria, one targeting ISIS, in which four ISIS terrorists were killed and the second, targeting a Hezbollah weapons convoy and a Syrian military compound just outside Damascus. Though the Israelis have understandably remained moot on the specifics of the latter attack, according to published sources, Israeli fighters launched a number of Israeli made Popeye air-to-surface missiles from Lebanese airspace at a facility housing elements of Syria’s 4th Armored Division as well as a Hezbollah-bound weapons convoy traveling along the Beirut-Damascus highway.
Israel cognizant of Russia’s S-400 and S-300 air defense platforms in Syria opted to circumvent the possibility of an accidental confrontation by launching its attack from Lebanese airspace. It should be noted that the S-400s were deployed by the Russians last year following the downing of a Russian Su-24 by a Turkish F-16. The move was meant to serve as a deterrent to Turkey and no hostile intent was directed at Israel. Additionally, the term “Lebanese airspace” is a rather generous term that implies that Lebanon is a fully sovereign nation. In reality, Lebanon is sovereign in name only, having been swallowed whole by Hezbollah, Iran’s genocidal Shia proxy.
Israel’s interest in Syria is limited to ensuring that game-changing weapons of strategic import don’t fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Thus, on several occasions, Israeli fighter jets have launched successful interdicting operations aimed at destroying sophisticated weaponry – including SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles, Scud D ballistic missiles and Yakhont cruise missiles – clandestinely shipped from Iran via Syria.
A secondary goal is to ensure that border areas remain free of Hezbollah, Iranian and ISIS influence. In January 2015, an Israeli airstrike liquidated 12 senior Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps operatives, including an IRGC general, who were reconnoitering the border near Israel’s Golan Heights for future operations against the Jewish State.
Russia, which has a much broader interest in Syria, understands Israel’s concerns and has no interest in needlessly antagonizing the Israelis. Syria has been under Soviet and now Russia’s sphere of influence since the early 1950s and Russia is intent on maintaining its air and naval bases in Syria. To that end, it is keen on maintaining Assad’s hold on power, or for that matter, any Assad replacement that commits to friendly relations with Moscow and continued Russian military presence.
Russia is also looking to project military power and reassert its role as a superpower. The high profile deployment of a sizable Russian fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean, which includes the Russian aircraft carrier and Cold War relic, Admiral Kuznetsov, represents part of this strategy. However, it appears that the Kuznetsov has been a bit of an embarrassment for Putin.
On November 14, a carrier-based MiG-29K crashed while attempting a failed landing on the Kuznetsov. The carrier was encountering problems with its arrestor cables and the MiG crashed while circling and waiting for repairs. Just three weeks later, a Russian Navy Su-33 encountered a similar fate while attempting a landing on the Kuznetsov. Recent Satellite imagery taken of the Russian air base at Khmeimim, near Latakia, shows rows of Su-33 and MiG-29K carrier-based aircraft parked alongside Russian land-based fighter jets indicating that the Russians have given up on the notion of launching strikes from the Kuznetsov.
While the Israelis and Russians maintain clear strategies and objectives for Syria, under Obama, the U.S. strategy in Syria can best be described as befuddled and lacking any clear direction. The U.S. had initially called for Assad’s unconditional departure but seems to have backed away from that position and now calls for an orderly transition of power, seemingly giving Assad some wiggle room.
Obama had threatened to use military force if Assad employed poison gas against his own people but back peddled on that position as well. In late 2015 it was revealed that the Obama administration spent an astonishing $500 million to train four or five Free Syrian Army rebels, clearly demonstrating that Obama’s policy on Syria represents nothing short of a farcical tragic comedy.
The Obama administration had initially ignored the ISIS menace and its current pinprick military campaign against the terror group is utilizing but a fraction of America’s military strength. Finally, while the Obama administration has publicly sought to end Syria’s civil war peacefully, its transfer of billions in cash to the Islamic Republic has only served to fuel the fire. There is no doubt that this cash has been utilized to pay the salaries of Iran’s mercenary forces in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
The vacillating and pusillanimous policies pursued by the Obama administration have enabled the Russians and Iranians to fill the void. Meanwhile, as Syria’s death toll nears 500,000 and its migrants – some with radical Islamic connections – continue to stream into Europe, it is clear that the nation state of Syria, Balkanized after five years of brutal conflict, is no more.
Ari Lieberman is an attorney and former prosecutor who has authored numerous articles and publications on matters concerning the Middle East and is considered an authority on geo-political and military developments affecting the region.
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