Raised Israel-Russia tension is not the only troubling aspect of strike in Syria
AnalysisIDF says it hit weaponry that posed 'an intolerable threat'

Raised Israel-Russia tension is not the only troubling aspect of strike in Syria

The Latakia area is normally considered off-limits by Israel. The target of Monday’s attack there, which led to Syria’s downing of a Russian plane, must have been highly important

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Syrian President Bashar Assad inspects the Russian Hmeimim air base in the province of Latakia, Syria, June 27, 2017 (Syrian Presidency via AP, File)
Syrian President Bashar Assad inspects the Russian Hmeimim air base in the province of Latakia, Syria, June 27, 2017 (Syrian Presidency via AP, File)

The overnight air strike by Israel in Syria was just one of hundreds of such attacks over the past year — most of them attributed, but few of them acknowledged, by Israel. Nonetheless, there were several highly unusual aspects to it — not least, of course, the accompanying downing of a Russian military plane, with 15 crew, by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.

This Syrian strike on the Russian plane, as a side-effect of the Israeli strike, is producing considerable tension between Moscow and Jerusalem, despite the security coordination that has hitherto been maintained between Israel and Russia in the Syrian context.

On Tuesday afternoon, Russia summoned Israel’s ambassador to Moscow to its foreign ministry for clarifications. Earlier, Russia stated that the incident constituted deliberate provocation by Israel, which endangered Russian lines, and that Moscow reserved the right to respond. In response, in a very rare turn of events, Israel acknowledged the strike, expressed sorrow over the loss of Russian lives, made plain that it blamed Syria for the downing of the Russian plane, and gave details of what had played out.

The escalated friction in Israel-Russia ties, however, is not the only unusual aspect of this attack. The location of the targets that were struck was also out of the ordinary — and, again, this is because of the Russian connection.

The port city of Latakia is considered to be Syria’s main port city, the center of Bashar Assad’s Alawite Islamic sect, and a symbol of the survival of the Assad regime. Beyond this, however, it is also marked by a significant Russian presence.

The Russian air base Hmeimim, which is considered the most important in the country, is located nearby, to the south. Russia maintains several rings of protective anti-aircraft missile defenses around the base. This area was adjacent to the targets struck overnight.

Russia’s main naval base in Syria may be located at Tartus, a few dozen miles further south, but Russian ships do use Latakia from time to time, as a kind of secondary port. Until now, the whole area had been considered almost extra-territorial by Israel, essentially off-limits, because of the Russian presence. There may have been an occasional strike in recent years, but if so, it barely figured in international, Arab or, indeed, Israeli media reports.

Explosions seen in the Syrian city of Latakia after an attack on a military facility nearby on September 17, 2018. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Therefore, for Israel to have struck at targets in Latakia, the targets must have been critical. And indeed, the IDF, in its Tuesday statement, specified that the target was a Syrian military facility that manufactured “accurate and lethal weapons,” which were “about to be transferred, on behalf of Iran, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Syria, for its part, said the target struck was a subsidiary of its defense ministry, known as the Organization for Technical Industries, which has suspected ties to the country’s chemical weapons and missile programs. “These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it,” the army said.

Latakia has in the past been a focus of Syrian military activity. It was through Latakia, notably, that Assad imported components that were used in the construction of Syria’s Al-Kabir nuclear reactor at Deir ez-Zour, which was destroyed by Israel in 2007.

Unusual, too, was the very nature of the strike, at least according to initial information. First reports suggested that planes or unmanned drones had carried out the attack. Soon after, there were reports that it was carried out from the sea.

Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that a French destroyer even fired missiles in the course of the attack, though the French denied any involvement. Later, Russia said the strike was carried out by four Israel F-16s.

What is clear is that Syria’s anti-aircraft defenses responded with heavy fire — even if there were no actual targets, such as Israeli planes, in the area. Said the IDF: “The Syrian anti-air batteries fired indiscriminately and, from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air.”

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