by Yoav Limor
Moscow's ire over the latest reported Israeli strike in Syria is fueled by the strategic behind-the-scenes struggle between Russia and the U.S., in which Israel is merely a pawn
A reported Israeli strike in Syria on Wednesday was, according to foreign media reports, a clear signal that despite the strategic changes in the region, Israel will continue to adhere to its declared policy of preventing Iran from entrenching itself militarily in the war-torn country, and preventing Tehran from arming Hezbollah, its regional proxy, with advanced weapons.
Wednesday's strike, which reportedly targeted several Hezbollah leaders as well as Iranian ammunition depots near Damascus, was the largest raid since the Sept. 17 incident in which a Russian reconnaissance plane was downed by Syria aid defenses responding to an Israeli airstrike.
Russia was furious over Wednesday's operation, saying the strike placed civilian aircraft in harm's way, but foreign media reports have quoted unnamed officials as saying that the Russians were informed in advance of the raid through the operational hotline Israeli and Russian forces in Syria maintain.
If this was indeed the Israeli Air Force's handiwork, Russia's castigation is likely intended for several ears: first, for the Syrians, who must be wondering why Moscow allows Israel to continue operating freely in their airspace; second, for leaders near and far, with the aim of reaffirming Russia's status as the dominant superpower in the Middle East; and third – and most important – for Israel, which again learned that the Kremlin is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to such operations and may, in the future, translate its disapproval into various measures on the ground.
The Russian claim that Syrian air defenses intercepted most of the IAF's missiles should, as usual, be taken with a big grain of salt. Syrian air defenses did launch dozens of missiles at their targets, so it is reasonable to assume they were at least somewhat successful, but Moscow's sweeping claim is likely motivated by an effort to prove that Russia's S-300 missile defense systems provided to Syria are superior to American defense systems.
This is a struggle between the superpowers in which Israel is merely a pawn and one where no punches – even half-truths – are pulled. This has created a delicate equation that requires Israel to tiptoe between the lines, especially given U.S. President Donald Trump's decision last week to withdraw of all American troops from Syria.
Israel will undoubtedly have to counter Iranian and Hezbollah moves in the future – perhaps even in the very near future. Moscow will no longer be as sympathetic to such action and it falls to Israel to spare no effort to foster the necessary understandings so as to avoid mistakes, and especially to avert a situation where an offensive move devolves into a strategic problem.
This is not impossible, and it seems that Israel can still maintain the necessary operational leeway, as long as it maintains prudence and engages in selective action, as it has been doing in recent months.
Meanwhile, the mounting tensions with Syria are offset by a relative calm on the Israel-Lebanon border, as Israel's countertunnel operation seems to be nearing its end.
Operation Northern Shield, launched on Dec. 4 with aim of detecting and destroying a network of Hezbollah terror tunnels snaking under the border, has so far unearthed five underground passageways breaching Israeli territory.
Defense officials believe the operation will be completed within two weeks, at which point the IDF will refocus its attention on completing the new border fence and Hezbollah will undoubtedly try to compensate for its loses by devising new ways to "conquer the Galilee" in the next war.
The IDF is convinced that Hezbollah will not waste any more resources on digging tunnels, but rather look for new ways to challenge the Israeli military in the northern sector.
One of the things to look out for is whether the Shiite terrorist group will accelerate its precision-missile development program in Lebanon, something that would cause tensions in the sector to spike and may even trigger another war.
Israel must meet this possibility fully prepared both militarily and diplomatically, meaning it must also ensure it has international legitimacy to act. This is another key reason to resolve, or at least downplay, the ongoing disagreements with Russia.
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