Russian President Vladimir Putin this week seized on a chance for getting back at President Donald Trump by bashing Israel. He had been looking for a way to settle accounts with Trump for backing out of the deal they struck in Helsinki in July for the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. A month later, Trump was persuaded to change his mind and keep the troops in place by all his military and intelligence advisers. They argued that a US pullback would undo the administration’s campaign against Iran by opening the door for Iran to open up a land bridge to the Mediterranean. This would give Iran and Russia a major triumph.
Their arguments were spelled out in subsequent remarks.
On Sept. 24, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis maintained: “US troops have been fighting Islamic State militants in Syria for four years and will remain in eastern portions of the war-torn country until American leaders are convinced the terrorist group cannot mount a return.”
National Security adviser John Bolton said earlier that the US military “will stay in the country until Iranian militants move outside the borders.” Mattis noted that he and Bolton were “on the same sheet of music” when it comes to Syria. He also remarked that part of the Syria problem is Iran’s involvement. “Washington must address Iran,” he said, “because whenever instability occurs in Syria, Iran’s imprint can be found.”
Putin’s chance for hitting back at Trump dropped out of the sky in Syria on Sept. 17.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources won’t go into all the ins and outs of the altercations between the Russian Defense Ministry and the IDF over the circumstances which led Syrian air defenses that day to shoot down a Russian Il-20 spy plane off the Syrian Latakia coast with 15 people aboard. On that day, an Israeli air raid over Latakia destroyed an Iranian ballistic missile consignment for Hizballah. The Russian MoD put all the all blame on the Israeli Air Force and accused the IDF of falsely presenting the incident.
What matters is that President Putin lined up with the MoD against the IDF when he talked on the phone with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sept. 24. He too accused Israel’s Air Force Chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Nurkin of bringing false data when he was sent post-haste to Moscow the day after the crash to explain what happened. The day after the Putin-Netanyahu phone call, Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu, insinuating that the Israelis were hotheads and needed cooling down, unveiled a series of punitive measures for that purpose.
- Russia will supply Syria with eight S-300 air defense missiles in the coming weeks. They will be manned by Russian crews until the Syrians are trained in their use. Therefore, for the first time in the seven-year Syrian war, Israeli air force jets may encounter anti-air missiles fired by Russian military personnel.
The S-300 has a range of 250km which cover northern and central Israel. Emplaced in Damascus, they could reach Jerusalem to the east and Israel’s main seaport at Ashdod in the west. The Russian crews will therefore have the capacity for shooting down IAF aircraft flying in Israeli air space on the pretext that they are heading for Syria.
- Russia will upgrade the electronic capabilities of Syrian missiles batteries to bring them level with the corresponding Russian batteries. The two systems can therefore be integrated for taking turns in countering Israel air strikes.
- Russia will jam satellite navigation, on-board radars and communications systems of combat aircraft and ships which attack targets in Syrian territory and Mediterranean waters opposite Syria. The first unit, a Krasukha-4 mobile electronic warfare system, which can neutralize spy satellites and ground-and airborne radars, as well as damaging enemy EW, was already unloaded at Khmeimim air base on Tuesday.
- Shoigu did not cite Israel as a jamming target because the intention is to apply electronic warfare measures against any foreign force seeking to attack Syria, including the United States.
By these measures, Syrian air and maritime space is to be brought under Russian military control in every important respect. By neutralizing its air cover, Moscow would effectively make the US military presence at its Syrian bases untenable.
Israeli officials displayed unconcern for these measures, pretending they present no obstacle to their air force and navy. A few worried voices did warn that they could cost the lives of Israeli air crews and planes but were quickly silenced.
In fact, the obstacles are real, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources note. The IDF has no operational experience in countering a wide electronic screen such as the Russians propose to spread across all of Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. Israel’s military has hitherto dealt successfully only with single electronic challenges confined to one place. Faced with Russia’s widely distributed EW threat, the IDF will have to ask the US for assistance.
It is hard to explain how, after three years of close cooperation with the Russians in Syria and seven years of abstaining from direct intervention in the Syrian civil, Israel finds itself suddenly tossed on the table as a card in the rough contest building up in this arena between two superpowers.
DEBKA Weekly notes some of the causes leading up to this unforeseen predicament. The immediate catalyst was Israel’s misplaced response to Moscow’s assignment of culpability for the shooting down of the spy plane by Syria. Accusing the defense ministry in Moscow of telling lies was a bad move. The Netanyahu government made other errors in the course of the Syrian civil war. During the years in which the US stood aside from the Syrian conflict, Netanyahu nurtured close ties with Putin. This was necessary. But in the past year, their understandings tipped over into overreliance and exaggerated trust in Moscow. On the strength of Putin’s assurances, the IDF held back from drawing a strong line when the Syrian army, with Russian support, moved southeast, along with hostile Iranian and Hizballah elements, right up to Israel’s Golan border.
They are still there. But meanwhile, Israel’s military passivity in the face of this extreme peril for its national security has eroded respect for Jerusalem in Moscow and Tehran as an influential player worthy of consideration in the Syrian arena.
That was the price for forgetting the golden rule of warfare, which Israel’s leaders learned at great cost in the 2006 Lebanon conflict: Wars are never won by air combat alone. The upshot of this episode is that, after more than 200 air strikes against Iranian and Hizballah targets in Syria in nearly two years, the Israeli military is being forced back to page one of its effort to deprive Iran of a permanent base in Syria – only now it will be facing Russia.