“Israel has to worry about potential Russian deployment in Syria, because in the Middle East, if you don’t worry, you pay the price,” Dr. Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, told The Algemeiner this week.
He was responding to recent reports about Moscow’s stepped-up efforts to assist the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which purportedly involve the dispatching of military personnel and equipment, for the purpose of setting up an air base in the area of Latakiya, which Assad controls.
More specifically, Schueftan was referring to claims in the Arab press indicating that this turn of events could mean Israel will be prevented by Moscow from conducting its own operations against terrorists over Syrian skies. According to the Beirut-based, pro-Hezbollah daily, Al-Akhbar, Tel Aviv “will face the predicament of a resistance region in southern Syria that has Russian cover.”
“There is a grain of truth to this,” said Schueftan. “The Russians have indeed stepped up their involvement in Syria to aid the Syrian regime. And since the regime depends heavily on Hezbollah, and since Israel and Hezbollah are in a permanent state of war, initiated by Hezbollah, Russian presence presents a problem.”
Israel, he added, “might have to fight Hezbollah terrorism [from the air, over Syria], or forcefully prevent the delivery of major modern weapons systems from Iran through Syrian into Lebanon. Israel has already, on a number of occasions, attacked such convoys without admitting it.”
Therefore, Schueftan explained, “Having the Russian military in the way makes this more difficult. Israel cannot afford to disregard Russian interests. It will thus have to consider whether and when each proposed IDF action comes close to the red lines Israel assesses Russia would tolerate it crossing.”
He then went on to answer his own rhetorical questions: “Will this prevent Israel from operating in Syria and Lebanon? Certainly not. Will it create constraints? Yes. But these constraints will be limited to what Israel assumes are the kind of extreme cases that would cause the Russians to take action against it.”
Asked by The Algemeiner for an example of such an “extreme case,” Schueftan said, “For instance, if Israel were to decide to bombard Assad’s palace and kill him, Israel should assume that this would constitute a red line from a Russian point of view.”
On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a press briefing in which he stopped short of openly echoing sentiments like those expressed by Schueftan. He did, however, acknowledge his concern over this development, while at the same time repeating what Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted about the scope of his intervention in Syria.
“As far as we understand, at this stage we are talking about a limited force that includes advisers, a security team and preparations for operating planes and combat helicopters,” Ya’alon said, a day after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry questioned Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov about what appear to be serious military moves on the part of Moscow, involving air strikes.
Though Lavrov was evasive, and said the cargo being delivered to Syria included “humanitarian aid,” he also reiterated Putin’s comment last week that Russia was “exploring various options.”
Meanwhile, a report in the Russian press last week, obtained by Israeli journalist, Shimon Briman, and made available to The Jerusalem Post, said that Israel Aircraft Industry (IAI) drones were recently purchased by the Russian defense ministry.
According to Briman, an expert on Russian-Ukrainian affairs, the business newspaper in which the report appeared, Vedomosti, is generally reliable.
Though the IAI has neither confirmed nor denied the report, the paper said that 10 Israeli intelligence-gathering drones were bought this year, for the purpose of Russian surveillance of its borders with Ukraine.
According to a Guardian report in May, two of these drones were downed by Ukrainian forces – which was discovered from photographs of the debris, showing the words “IAI” and “MALAT [UAV] Military Aircraft Group.”
The Jerusalem Post article on this revelation further claimed that previous military transactions with Russia, such as the sale of Israeli drones in 2011, suggested that through these deals, Israel would gain “an avenue of influence as a means to reduce the chances of Russia selling advanced weapons to Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah.”