image Photo: Reuters

Russia reportedly helping Iran avoid Israeli airstrikes in Syria

A plane loaded with Iranian cargo was permitted to land at a Russian airbase in Syria today for the second time in two weeks to avoid Israeli airstrikes, according to Arab media reports.

Citing “a source in Damascus,” as well “a report from the Latakia Governorate,” Lebanon’s Al-Masdar News reported that, “a Syrian cargo plane traveled from the Iranian capital to the Hmeimim Airbase, where they later unloaded without fear of an Israeli warplane bombing their positions.”

It should be noted that Al-Masdar is pro-Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran. According to the Beirut-based outlet, “The reason for landing at the Hmeimim Airbase is to avoid airstrikes, which have previously targeted the Damascus International Airport. Israel has made it no secret that they are watching Iran’s every step in Syria, as they have repeatedly struck the Islamic Republic’s forces and their paramilitary allies across the Levantine nation, with some attacks even targeting neighboring Iraq.”

It futher noted, “It’s not clear what Israel’s plan will be if these flights continue, as they have run into some issues with Russia in the past over their airstrikes near the Hmeimim Airbase.”

The Syrian Observer reported that “a flight tracking app” revealed the first such landing of Iranian cargo at Hmeimim occurred the first week of May, when “a Syrian IL-76 cargo aircraft was tracked flying from Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport to the Hmeimim Airbase near the coastal city of Jableh in Syria’s Lattakia Governorate.”

Russia challenged (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu,” said an expert at the Russian Avia.Pro publication to the Syrian Observer publication, who also asserted that “just one (Israeli) attempt to attack the Russian military airbase in Syria, regardless of the circumstances, would lead not only to the destruction of Israeli aircraft, but also to strike in Israel itself.”

Israel has long insisted that it will not tolerate Iran’s presence in the neighboring state of Syria. Prime Minister Netanyahu and other top security officials have reiterated that any action deemed necessary will be taken to prevent the Islamic Republic from establishing a permanent presence in the Arab Republic, they believe would be used as a launchpad for attacks against Israel.

Even though policy generally prohibits official comment on specific IDF military operations, Israel’s defense establishment has acknowledged to having carried out hundreds to thousands of raids deep within Syrian territory against Iranian infrastructure and command centers since the 2011 outbreak of civil war in the Arab Republic; in addition against pro-Iran militias operating in Iraq and Iranian weapons-smuggling convoys to its proxies in both Syria and Lebanon.

In what appears to be a recently-intensified campaign, 6 air strikes attributed to Israel have targeted Iranian targets in Syria over the past three weeks. They include a 1 May attack the Hezbollah-affiliated Al Mayadeen TV network said was by “unidentified warplanes” on the Islamic Republic’s flagship Imam Ali base and other targets in Syria in which several Iranian nationals were wounded.  TV7 corroborated another major strike 4 May on a military-industrial site near Aleppo used by Iran and its proxies to manufacture advanced weaponry and missiles and upgrade an existing stockpile with precision guidance systems. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that 14 members of pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias were killed in that attack. Reuters reported that separately Israeli jets are believed to have hit Iranian-backed militias stationed in the town of Albukamal near the border with Iraq, where Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary groups have become entrenched.

Reuters also cited a “regional intelligence official” as claiming that Israel is “stepping up raids in Syria at a time when world attention and the region, including Syria, were distracted by the coronavirus pandemic,” in strikes that are being backed by the United States.

During a regional security briefing on 5 May at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett vowed to comprehensively drive Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) out of Syria. Bennett maintained, “For Iran, Syria is a distant adventure that is 1,000 kilometers from home, the (Israel-Syria) border of the Golan Heights. For us it is about life. We are far more determined.” He then warned that “Iranian soldiers who enter Syria and are active there will pay for it with their lives.”

Other defense officials at the meeting then insisted that “Tehran is cutting back its forces in Syria and removing military bases for the first time since it (Iran) entered Syria as part of the Syrian civil war,” the senior sources went on to claim, insisting that “Iran’s presence was becoming a burden, rather than an asset, to Syria” and that “Damascus is paying an increasingly high price for Iran’s presence in its territory, for a war that isn’t its own.”

Local media was quick to carry the reports. Headlines in the Israel HaYom daily read “Iran starting to pull up stakes in Syria, defense officials say,” “Defense officials: Iran pulling out of Syria as Israel pummels its forces there” in The Times of Israel and “Security official: Iran begins pulling troops out of Syria” on the Ynet website.

Prominent regional security analyst Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security Studies, cautioned the attribution of diminished Iranian activities in Syria solely to Israeli actions.

While stating that it is “very, very likely” that Israeli attacks on its facilities near Damascus such as in al-Qiswa and elsewhere were among “considerations” of an “ongoing process in which Iran tactically makes decisions,” Dr. Spyer told TV7 in an exclusive interview that “it’s worth remembering that Iran has been scaling back its presence in Syria since 2018 – because that was the year in which major combat operations in Syria concluded.”

“The notion that there is something ‘immensely new’ regarding the change in Iranian deployment is not accurate,” observed Dr. Spyer. “Extrapolating from that, as a number of Israeli spokespeople have done in the media in recent days, that Iran is now ‘withdrawing from Syria’ and that the Israeli campaign against Iran in Syria is near to ‘a strategic success’ is absolutely overblown and entirely unjustified by the available facts.”

With regard to the alleged delivery of Iranian cargo to Russia’s airbase in Latakia, Dr. Spyer commented that while unable to verify such reports, he views them as “perfectly possible and feasible;” and if proven true, the development “would further indicate the extent to which at the end of the day, Russia and Iran are strategic allies with regard to Syria and the preservation of the Assad Regime.”

Dr. Spyer went on to say that any reported disagreements between Moscow and Tehran over Syria must be viewed “within the broader context that they’re on the same side, that these are disagreements between allies.”

Such disparity is certainly visible in the alliance between Moscow and Jerusalem, which have had a series of diplomatic spats over Syria. The Russian military accused Israel of responsibility when a civilian Airbus A320 with 172 passengers aboard was nearly shot down upon its approach at the Damascus Airport on 6 February by antiaircraft missiles that had been fired by Syria in response to an alleged IDF raid. The plane ultimately touched down at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase.

The official TASS government outlet cited Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov as criticizing what he referred to as what was becoming Israel’s “typical practice” of using civilian aircraft as a “shield” against Syrian air defenses.

The accusation is believed to pertain to the September 2018 downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane by the Syrian air force in attempts to counter an alleged strike by an Israeli F-16, during which 15 crew members were killed. The IDF vehemently refuted any of its aircraft had used the Russian plane as cover; but soon thereafter, Israeli defense officials developed a “coordination mechanism” with their counterparts in Moscow to avert any inadvertent conflict while conducting operations in Syria. Jerusalem later objected when Moscow delivered its S-300 air defense system to Damascus in what the Russian Ministry of Defense said was intended to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 27, 2019 – marking the 10th meeting between the two leaders since Russia launched its military intervention in Syria, as well as their first face-to-face discussion since the 2018 incident. According to the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, during that meeting “the sides had reached understandings on two core issues: settling the bilateral crisis between Israel and Russia, and revitalizing the bilateral dialogue to achieve up-to-date understandings about foreign troops in Syria, first and foremost, the Iranian presence.”

This past January Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Jerusalem, greeting him as “our great friend” and thanking him for “the brave link between Russia and Israel, which serves our peoples and our policy as well as peace and stability in the region.”

When asked by TV7 about Russia’s dual and seemingly conflicting loyalties to Jerusalem, Damascus – and even Tehran – Dr. Spyer said, “what Russia wants to do in this region is to make itself the indispensable mediator between more-or-less everybody. That’s the pattern of Russian behavior.”

Pointing to Putin’s recent pact on a ceasefire with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Syria, Dr. Spyer emphasized that “If we think of the way in which the Russians cultivate good relations with Erdogan in Turkey while at the same time as having good relations with the Syrian Regime – and then seeking to mediate between them – with their very clear differences in northern Syria; then this (Putin’s relationship with Netanyahu) is another example of exactly the same process.”

“Putin is by no means an enemy of Israel. Putin want to be able to work with Israel. The Russian attitude toward Israeli actions in Syria, as far as we can make out, is an existing deconfliction mechanism based on the Russian conviction that as long as you don’t bother the specific Russian interests and Russian material presence in Syria – the Russians don’t care what you do -fine, you can attack others, don’t attack Russia. And that’s what Israel does and then Russia doesn’t object,” said Dr. Spyer.

Moreover, he said “Russia doesn’t deploy its own anti-aircraft capacity in Syria, which it has (previously), against Israeli attacks in Syria against Iran. So absolutely, that’s what the Russians wish to do – they wish to be equidistant, so to speak, between a whole variety of players and thus make themselves indispensable to everybody.”

“If you want to get anything done, you have to go through Moscow – that’s what Putin wants,” concluded Dr. Spyer.

— By Erin Viner