In a furious response to Israel’s air offensive of Tuesday, Dec. 25 against Syrian military targets southwest of Damascus, the Russian defense ministry spokesman accused Israel of “provocative actions… when six F-16 aircraft launched an air strike on Syrian territory from the airspace of neighboring Lebanon, creating a direct threat to two passenger aircraft.” According to the spokesman, Gen. Maj. Igor Konashenkov, the Israeli attack on Syria was “again carried out under cover” of two civil aircraft landing at the airports of Beirut and Damascus. Neither belonged to Russian air carriers, the Russian general stressed, but did not say to which countries or airlines the two planes did belong.
Russian military sources described the Israeli attack as being conducted by IAF warplanes which launched 16 missiles carrying GBU-39 bunker busters. Two reached their targets and 14 were intercepted by Syrian air defense weapons.
DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources note that the Russian version partially dovetails with the version presented by US military sources. Both affirm that GBU-39 Small Diameter bombs were used, but the Americans claim they were used in the second Israeli wave of strikes – and only after Syrian anti-air missiles knocked out most of the Delilah cruise missiles fired from F-16 jets.
Our sources also stress that that this was the first time that a Russian defense spokesman had referred to Beirut international airport, or Lebanon per se, in the context of an Israeli air strike over Syria. It may be taken as a Russian message to Jerusalem that the Kremlin and Russian army chiefs are weighing their options for retaliating against the Israeli air offensive. One possibility is the extension of the Russian shield of S-400 and S-300 air defense missile systems protecting Syrian air space to the skies over Lebanon. This safety curtain would also protect Hizballah. A decision in Moscow on how to react against Israel may take a few days, like the time lapse before Russian S-300 air defense systems were deployed in Syria after the downing of the downing of the IL-20 spy plane on Sept. 17 for which Israel was blamed.
DEBKAfile’s sources account for Moscow’s fury over the Israel’s latest air strike by two factors:
- Israel was always expected to respect the Russiam role as protector of the Assad regime, a cardinal pillar of its foreign policy, and refrain from destabilizing actions. On Tuesday night, Israeli missiles were aimed at the Syrian army’s 4th Division headquarters as Saboura, the mainstay of the regime. For Moscow, this crossed an unacceptable line in the relationship, even if Iranian or Hizballah forces were located there.
- The Russians were confident that the new air defense shield they had deployed around Damascus, consisting of Pantsir-S2, S-200 SAM, BUK-M2, and S-300 missile batteries, was foolproof against any Israeli air or missile assaults on and around the Syrian capital. And, indeed, that array struck down the first wave of Israeli missiles. But Moscow did not count on the IAF persevering and immediately releasing a second wave of missiles before the Syrians were able to reorganize for defense. It was this perseverance which so angered the Russians in September, after the IL-20 was shot down by a Syrian missile, and which set off the crisis in relations between Moscow and Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s rejoinder: “Our actions against Iran’s military establishment in Syria will continue,” he said on Wednesday. “We stand by our red lines.” And Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Nurkin said: “By means of an extraordinary joint effort, we have thwarted Iran’s drive for an active military foothold on our northern border. We are not done yet. If necessary, we are ready for more ground and air operations.”