Israel in Two Minds on Fresh Air Strikes over Syria, although Pushed by Washington

Get back up in the sky, because Iran is flooding Syria with new weapons for Hizballah and must be stopped! That was the message Washington was addressing to Israel on Oct. 19 when “Western intelligence sources” leaked to Fox News the details of a new and dangerous Iranian delivery to Lebanon.

During the past month, four US and British spy planes have been flying two to three missions a week over Syria from their air bases in Crete The American aircraft fly north along the Syrian Mediterranean coast up to the Turkish border, before turning back to their base at Heraklion airport; the British aircraft fly over the northern Israeli port of Haifa, turn north towards the Jordanian-Syrian border and then keep going along the Mediterranean coast up to the meeting point of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraq borders.

DEBKA Weekly has the details of the aircraft conducting these missions.

One of the two US spy planes is an MC-12S Enhanced Medium Altitude craft which has a Reconnaissance and Surveillance system (EMARSS-S), a suite of signal-snooping gear for tracking and listening in on enemy communications, as well as the ability to record full-motion video by day or by night.

The second is a USAF MC-12W Liberty intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. Each of the two aircrafts has a work station connected to the Distributed Common Ground System – Army (DCGS-A) intelligence data network, which is designed to collect, compile and distribute information rapidly across units.

The British spy planes, which are based at Souda Bay in Crete, are a Boeing RC-135, which is an Airseeker Electronic Snooping Plane and an R1 Sentinel, an airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft.

The US and British surveillance and reconnaissance missions are assigned the tasks of tracking the hi-tech Russian S-300 air defense missiles and electronic warfare systems that Moscow installed in Syria after a Russian IL-20 jet was accidentally downed by Syrian missiles on Sept. 17. Moscow blamed the Israeli air force for the disaster and installed those measures to seriously hamper all future air operations over Syria.

On Sept. 24, Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu revealed them as:

  • The transfer to Syria of Russian S-300 anti-air missiles.
  • Their upgrade to match the level of Russian batteries in Syria.
  • Deployment of electronic warfare (EW) systems for jamming enemy ground- and airborne radar over Syria and the eastern Mediterranean.

However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources revealed that after Shoigu’s disclosures, the Russian army took further, more extreme, steps, which suggested that his apparent candor was intended to deceive US and Israeli air force chiefs about what the Russians were really up to in Syria.

This month, the broad scale of those measures came to light:

  1. Three battalion sets of advanced S-300 medium-range PM-2 missiles, along with Russian teams, arrived in Syria in addition to the S-400 air defense missiles already deployed there.
  2. Also installed around Syria’s main cities and military bases was another type of advanced air defense system, one especially designed to intercept cruise missiles and low-flying aircraft which the S-300s are not equipped to stop.
  3. Cutting-edge electronic warfare gear was imported from Russia to Syria.

From late September, these systems were able to lock on to any flying object approaching Syrian airspace and mark it as a potential target for a Russian S-300 battery.

The reluctance of Israel Air Force commanders to resume air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria comes, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources disclose, from the suspicion that the Russians are laying an electronic trap for bringing down at least one Israeli jet, if not more, in order to settle accounts for their lost IL-20 spy plane.

During the month-long pause in Israeli air operations over Syria,

  1. a) US and British spy planes stepped in to take the measure of the newly-installed Russian EW gear and air defense missiles. Their intelligence calculates that the Russians will not shoot down American or British aircraft, unlike Israeli warplanes.
  2. b) Iran and Hizballah are taking full advantage of Syrian skies clear of Israeli jets to substantially step up their supplies of hardware and fly them to Lebanon.

Israel’s policy-makers and military chiefs are locked in intense debate over whether or not to resume air operations over Syria. The proponents argue that Iran and Hizballah cannot be allowed to continue replenishing their war arsenals, thereby nullifying the gains of nearly two years of destructive Israeli air operations. These supplies are bringing the threat of war with Hizballah too close for comfort. One group of Israeli officers maintains that, even if one or two planes are downed by Russian fire, this risk must be taken as the only way the Israeli Air Force can find out for certain if its EW measures can stand up to the new Russian set-up in Syria.

The counter-argument is advanced by a number of commanders and ministers, led Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. They urge patience because, they maintain, at the end of the day, President Vladimir Putin will return to their understandings and allow Israeli warplanes to return to Syrian skies. But even they recognize that the former freedom once enjoyed by Israeli jets is a thing of a past and restrictions will be in place.

An inkling of this debate leaked into the opening of the Knesset’s winter session on Oct. 15, when Netanyahu in his speech said he was in “direct contact with Putin” who “prizes highly our relations of friendship and mutual respect, which enables us to stand up to extremely complex challenges in our region.” He emphasized: “That connection is important for Israel’s security.”.

This was the prime minister’s way of smoothing over the unease caused by the pause in Israel’s aerial operations in Syria without making it a public admission.

Washington, however, was not satisfied. The leak to Fox News about the continuing delivery of Iranian weapons to Syria and Lebanon for Hizballah was a hard nudge from the Trump administration for Israel to return to action and demolish Iranian arms deliveries, even at a price. Hence the revelation that Iran’s Fars Air Qeshm flight number QFZ-9950 had touched down in Syria’s capital Damascus and continued to Beirut, carrying GPS devices for making Hizballah rockets into precision-guided weapons. This revelation was meant to put the Netanyahu government on the spot and force a decision. This is a decision Moscow would rather avert, preferring the deterrent effect of their military buildup in Syria to putting their own advanced military systems to to the test against Israeli hi-tech.

On Thursday, Oct. 25, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin stated that Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria had been subjected to a massive drone attack by unmanned aerial vehicles piloted by a US Poseidon 8 surveillance aircraft.

“This is very alarming data, of course, no one here should have any doubts about the conclusions, an appropriate analysis will be carried out by our military.”

And here we have, say DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, a typical Russian ruse for halting the US and British reconnaissance flights over Syria in case they are preparing the way for resumed Israeli air operations.

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