The Israeli Air Force’s two air strikes near the military airport of the Syrian capital Damascus on Wednesday, Nov. 11, had two objectives:
1. To wipe out the weapons stocks Iranian forces in Syrian were piling up at Syrian bases around the airport, including the arms consigned for transfer to Hizballah in Lebanon.
2. To destroy the accumulation of armored vehicles and ammunition that the Iranians, Syrians, and Hizballah had collected for a major offensive to drive Syrian rebels out of the positions they hold in the South on the borders with Israel and Jordan.
The Syrian government had mobilized troops for a large-scale assault on a triangular area extending from the southern outskirts of Damascus to Deraa in the southeast and Quneitra facing the Golan in the southwest.
Since the air strikes came just two days after the Washington summit between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in which Syria figured large, the air strikes were also clearly aimed at testing whether the understandings they reached in relation to the Russian military presence were feasible and how they would go down in Moscow.
Will Washington back Israeli air strikes in Syria in Russia’s presence?
This is not the first time Jerusalem and Washington have lined up to confront Moscow.
In the 1970s and the 1980s of the Soviet era, it suited Israel to act as an American proxy against the USSR in the Middle East, where Moscow was aligned with the Arab camp. On numerous occasions, the Israeli Air Force then confronted the Soviet Air Force in the skies above hostile Syria and Egypt.
Some of the operations were undertaken by the IAF to save the US from face-to-face confrontations with Moscow, which Washington preferred to avoid.
The Russians, in contrast, did not trust the less-skilled Egyptian or Syrian pilots to fly valuable Russian warplanes and sent their own pilots into battle against the IAF instead.
Moving forward to the present day, Netanyahu (as described in the next article of this issue) sought to hear Obama’s answers to the following questions:
A. In light of the massive Russian air force presence in Syria, are the US and Israel reverting to their system of 35 years ago, when the IAF carried out missions on behalf of the US?
B. Up to what point will the US support IAF operations in Syria, or, in other words, what are the Obama administration’s red lines?
C. Israel will continue to take action against Iranian and Hizballah targets in Syria, despite the presence of the Russian air force, as Netanyahu informed Russian President Vladimir Putin in September. So how would Washington react in the event of a clash between Israeli and Russian warplanes?
US and Israel on tenterhooks for Putin’s response to Israel’s air strikes
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Obama told Netanyahu that it is still too early to make these kinds of decisions, and that they must be held off for the outcome of the multinational conference taking pace in Vienna next week, when US, Russian, Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers discuss a political solution for ending the Syrian civil war and determine Syrian President Bashar Assad’s personal and political future.
The prime minister proposed that Israel put its chips on the table in advance of the conference by conducting air strikes to illustrate in forcible terms its red lines and interests in any Syrian accommodation.
Obama did not object to this plan. However his administration is divided. While the president was receptive to Israel’s concerns but has not decided unequivocally on how far to back the Israeli interest in Syria’s future, Secretary of State John Kerry is wholly behind the Iranian position, which cuts Israel out of the equation.
Our sources point out, interestingly, that Obama has come a long way in the three years since his all-out effort to stop Israel resorting to military action for stopping Iran building a nuclear bomb. Today, he accepts that some military action is unavoidable in addressing the complex Syrian crisis – even if is left to Israel.
Both Washington and Jerusalem are tensely awaiting Putin’s response to Wednesday’s Israeli air strikes. Even though they were not aimed at Russian targets, these operations also presented him with dilemmas, because they are a challenge to the Assad regime, to whose preservation Moscow is committed, and could interfere with Russia’s freedom of action in Syrian skies.
Furthermore, they may put Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria to the test at a time that the two allies are not entirely of one mind on all Syrian issues, including the fate of President Assad.