Israeli strikes in Syria may draw Russian grousing, but little else
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Analysis

Israeli strikes in Syria may draw Russian grousing, but little else

Despite Putin’s reported critique of IDF shelling of Assad’s forces, former ambassador to Moscow says it’s business as usual in Golan Heights

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli soldiers load shells into their tank following the first death on the Israeli side of the Golan since the eruption of the Syrian civil war more than three years ago, near the Israeli village of Alonei Habashan, June 22, 2014 (AP/Oded Balilty)
Israeli soldiers load shells into their tank following the first death on the Israeli side of the Golan since the eruption of the Syrian civil war more than three years ago, near the Israeli village of Alonei Habashan, June 22, 2014 (AP/Oded Balilty)

Israeli responses to Syrian fighting bleeding into the Golan Heights will likely not change, despite Russia’s recent decision to take a more active role in the civil war there, a former ambassador to Moscow said Tuesday.

Though occasional mortar shells and rockets from nearby Syria have been falling on the Israeli Golan Heights for years, increased Russian support for the Bashar Assad regime has changed the dynamic of the Syrian civil war and raised questions over how Israel will respond to attacks from across the border.

On Monday, Israeli forces hit two Syrian positions in response to errant mortar fire that landed in the Golan, as it has in dozens of instances in the last several years. The move reportedly drew Russian consternation, but little else in the form of a response from Moscow.

According to Zvi Magen, who served as Israel’s envoy to Russia from 1998 to 1999, that is likely as far as the Kremlin will go.

Verbal condemnation is one thing, “but actual consequences are a long way away,” said Magen, who is also a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies.

“They’re just hoping that Israel doesn’t attack too much,” he said.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) meets with the Russian army Chief of Staff Valery Grasimov in Moscow, Russia, on September 21, 2015 (IDF Spokesperson)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) meets with the Russian army Chief of Staff Valery Grasimov in Moscow, Russia, on September 21, 2015 (IDF Spokesperson)

Last Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two top IDF generals — Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence Chief Hertzi Halevi — traveled to Moscow last week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the Russian military.

In these meetings, the Israeli delegation reportedly made it clear to their Russian counterparts that though Israel would maintain its position of noninvolvement in the civil war, it would not allow Hezbollah and other terrorist groups to amass advanced weapons systems nor would it tolerate attacks against the Golan Heights.

During the three-hour meeting, Putin accepted Netanyahu’s position, reportedly telling him, “We are aware of the shelling against Israel and we condemn all such shelling.”

As this was the first of such attacks on the Golan Heights since the meeting in Moscow, Magen said, “Israel was quick to respond to the rocket fire in order to show that it does not intend to shy away.”

However, Russia was also quick to respond in its own way, despite the meeting with Netanyahu, with Putin criticizing Israel’s attack on the Syrian army in response to the rocket fire from the civil war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, September21, 2015 (courtesy Israeli embassy in Russia)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, September21, 2015 (courtesy Israeli embassy in Russia)

The Russian president again acknowledged Israel’s security concerns, but added he was “worried” by the IDF’s periodic strikes on positions in the embattled territory.

“Putin, for his part, made it a point to say his piece so that they wouldn’t look like chumps,” Magen said.

Israel is loath to pick a fight with the Russian Bear and potentially cause a break with Russia, with which Israel has shared diplomatic, military, business and cultural ties for decades.

However, Magen claimed, Russian criticism “will not have an influence” on future IDF attacks.

A large fire raging near Kfar Sold, caused by missiles fired from the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border and hitting open areas in the Golan Heights in northern Israel on August 20, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
A large fire raging near Kfar Szold, caused by missiles fired from the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border and hitting open areas in the Golan Heights in northern Israel on August 20, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Official Israeli policy has been to respond forcefully to every rocket and mortar that crosses the border into Israel — deliberate or otherwise, Magen explained. “If it was a mistake or not, we have responded to every attack because otherwise they won’t stop,” he said.

However, Israel has not actually responded to every attack. Last month, for instance, two mortar shells landed in the Israeli Golan Heights, but caused no damage or injuries. The IDF did not respond with return fire.

No one was injured in the rocket fire on Saturday night and Sunday night either and in fact the attacks did not even trigger a siren due to their distance from Israeli settlements, but the IDF nevertheless responded with artillery fire on two Syrian army positions, reportedly killing a deputy brigade commander of the Syrian army’s 90th battalion.

“It was determined by the relevant parties both at the state and military levels to respond,” an IDF official explained, though they refrained from discussing what led to their determinations.

Though in the past, the IDF has returned fire to the source of the attack — regardless of which side in the conflict was responsible — military officials made it clear in this week’s attacks that Israel “sees the Syrian regime and its army as responsible for what happens in the field.”

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