Syria’s first missile attack on Israeli Air Force reconnaissance flights over Lebanon on Oct. 16, was orchestrated jointly by Damascus and Tehran, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources reveal. The SA-5 ground-to-air missile battery was given the order to fire, even though the Syrian commanders knew ahead that the attack, which missed its target, would not deter Israel from its flights over Lebanon or Syria, even at the risk of a broad military flare-up along the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli borders.
The date was chosen with two considerations in mind:
- It was timed to coincide with the Iranian-Iraqi military operation for seizing oil-rich Kirkuk from the Kurds in a demonstration that Tehran and its Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were capable of operating synchronously in two arenas. Iran was therefore calling the shots in the Middle East – not the United States or Israel.
- The missile was launched while Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu was on his way to his first visit in Israel. It carried a message to Shoigu and his principal, President Vladimir Putin, that, despite massive Russian military assistance to Syria, neither Tehran nor Damascus were totally dependent on Moscow and would not hesitate to exercise their autonomy of action when they saw fit.
The Shoigu visit had long been planned, but its occurrence three days after President Donald Trump’s major speech unveiling his Iran strategy, lent it extra weight, as did the Syrian missile attack.
Any missile attack on Israel planes would ordinarily have been sanctioned by the Russian general in charge of the Russian and Syrian radar systems, which were recently amalgamated at the Hmeimim Air Base near Latakia. However, our Middle East sources report, the attack was ordered directly by the Syrian General Command in Damascus. The Russians only found out about it when the missile was airborne.
The Assad regime had struck a blow for its independence.
The choice of that particular SA-5 missile battery 50 km east of Damascus underlined that message.
Seventeen months ago, the Syrians armed that same battery for hitting Israel warplanes on their way home from a series of air strikes in Syria. But first, Damascus asked the Russian air command for approval. By the time it came through, the Israeli planes were already on the other side of the border and over Israel’s Sea of Galilee. The incoming Syrian missiles were too late and intercepted by Israel’s Arrow-2, which then staged its first anti-missile operation in conditions of combat.
This time, the Syrians determined to ahead and shoot Israeli warplanes without asking for Russian approval.
The Kirkuk offensive was another mutinous act against Moscow – this one by Iran.
On Sept. 25, Kurdistan’s parliament, over Baghdad’s objections, approved a contract with the Russian energy giant Rosneft to expand Russian investments in Kurdish gas. Included was funding to build a natural gas pipeline to process up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas exports a year, in addition to covering domestic consumption. The deal was estimated to be worth $1 billion. Rosneft furthermore granted the Kurdish republic hundreds of millions of dollars in loans under guarantee of future oil sales from Kirkuk. And indeed Iraqi Kurdistan sits on some of the largest untapped gas deposits in close proximity to Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin patted himself on the back for the deal as a major boost for Moscow’s international reach in the gas market.
But that was only until the Iranian-Iraqi military operation on Monday, Oct. 16. It brought Russia’s high-flying energy projects, based in Kurdistan’s control of Kirkuk and is oil fields, to a bone-shaking halt and placed its investment in high risk. Tehran had cooked up a scheme which had the effect of thwarting Russia’s entry to Iraq’si oil industry through the Kurdish back door.