May 29, 2024

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Will joint Russian-Syrian air patrols make Israel’s airstrikes harder? – analysis

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The Russian patrols appear to be a message about showing off that the Syrians and Russians will work closely to project power.

Syrian and Russian military jets patrolled together on Monday near Syria’s border with Israel. The report comes as tensions in Ukraine are at a boiling point, with Western powers accusing Russia of plotting an invasion. The Russian joint patrols with Syria could become a regular event, Russia has indicated. The reports have come from Russia’s defense ministry and Interfax news agency. This has ramifications for Israel and could impact Israel’s operations targeting Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

Israel has conducted a “campaign between the wars” which is used to prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria and moving weapons to Hezbollah. The Israel Defense Forces claim this is the term for the “IDF’s prevention and influence approach for force employment short of war.” Much of this campaign is waged in the shadows, but former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot told the New York Times in 2019 that Israel struck thousands of targets in Syria. In 2017 then head of the Air Force Amir Eshel said that “when Israel has a vested interest, it acts irrespective of the risks.” Eshel is now Director-General of the Ministry of Defense.

The big question now is whether the air patrols of Russia is embarking on are merely symbolic and will occur during the day as a show of force, or whether they are designed to actually send a message and potentially interfere with Israel’s actions. It is known that the former US administration supported Israel’s actions in Syria. However, US officials were also concerned that Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria might attack US forces in retaliation for Israel’s actions. In fact, back in 2018 Iranian facts in Iraq began to accuse the US of working with Israel, and also began to hint that Iraqi-based militias could target Israel. In 2021 Iranians attacked the US Tanf garrison in Syria, and US media reported that the Iranians acted in retaliation for Israeli strikes. In 2019 Iraqi militias also accused Israel of a series of airstrikes. In May 2021 Iran flew a drone from Iraq into Israeli airspace. Meanwhile, Iran also built up a base called Imam Ali near Albukamal in Syria and moved drones to the T-4 base, also in Syria. Iran also sought to bring the 3rd Khordad Air Defense system to the T-4 base in April 2018.

This is the context of the campaign between the wars. The other context is that in the summer of 2018 the Syrian regime retook southern Syria areas from Syrian rebels and established itself on the Golan border. Russian peacekeepers came as well. Hezbollah began to entrench near the Golan. This resulted in Hezbollah moving drones toward an area in the Golan in 2019. Meanwhile, Russia was more focused on reconciling with Syrian rebels and recruiting them for the Syrian army. Russia began to express more concerns about Israeli airstrikes, going as far as to claim in November 2019 that Israel had overflown Jordan to conduct airstrikes in Syria. Russia also said it would upgrade Syrian air defenses after a 2018 incident near Latakia where Syrian air defense shot down a Russian plane while trying to stop Israeli airstrikes. Russia also released more statements criticizing Israeli strikes. However, Russia has been quiet in recent months, even after airstrikes in Latakia in December. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2021.

So what is going on? Russia’s Defense Ministry has clearly indicated the recent daytime patrol included an area near the Golan Heights. The ministry said the patrol flights “will continue to operate on a regular basis,” Reuters reported. “The mission route included the Golan Heights, the southern border of Syria, the Euphrates River and northern Syria,” the statement said. “The Russian The pilots took off from Khmeimim Air Base, while the Syrians took off from the Sayqal and Al-Dumayur bases near Damascus.”

The patrols include the Sukhoi Su-34 attack aircraft; Sukhoi Su-35S multi-mission fighter jet; A-50 command and control aircraft; and the Syrian army’s MiG-23 and MiG-29 aircraft, Reuters said. While Israel has not been involved in aerial combat in Syria, most of these aircraft are not a match for Israel’s F-35s and advanced munitions. Israel shot down a Syrian Sukhoi fighter jet near the Golan in 2018. Syria has not retaliated for that incident. Israel has often coordinated with Russia in a kind of deconfliction in Syria since 2015 when Russia began major operations in Syria.

The news of the Russian patrols therefore appears to be a message about showing off that the Syrians and Russians will work closely to project power and impress upon the world that Syria has sovereignty over parts of the country. This is despite the fact that the US has bases in Syria, and Turkey occupies part of northern Syria. Russia and Syria want to send a message of strength to former Syrian rebels in southern Syria who work with Russia. The message therefore may not be directed at Israel, or not solely at Israel.

Most reports of Israeli airstrikes in Syria occur at night. There is no evidence that Russian and Syrian warplanes will be patrolling at night. Four other factors are involved: The fact that the US has supported Israel’s actions in Syria; that Russia doesn’t always share interests with Iran; that Israel has been reported by the Russians to overfly Jordan to conduct strikes; and that Israel can use stand-off munitions with a long-range, meaning that the joint patrols may not yet pose a major problem. Deconfliction also means potentially making sure the patrols occur with Israel’s knowledge. Israel’s advanced radar can also detect them.

The major question mark is whether these patrols will embolden Syria’s regime and Iranian-backed elements in Syria. Iran could use them as cover to attack Israel or use its proxies to strike at the US and Israel. This could be one part of a multi-stage Russian operation to assert Syrian regime sovereignty. Ultimately, that could lead to potential friction. Israel’s leadership will have to weigh these issues and analyze the next steps.


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