A string of events, beginning with the exchange of missiles between Israeli and Syrian forcesThursday, 10 May, has brought the relationship between Russia and Syria under new scrutiny, leading some to suggest that Syria’s greatest ally may be faltering in its resolve to protect the government of Bashar al-Assad from regime change.
On Wednesday, just a few hours before the strikes, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met in Moscow to discuss the Syrian conflict, among other issues. The meeting, which had been planned months prior, included discussions of Israel’s attacks on Iranian assets within Syria, which Russia had more or less publicly ignored until recently. However, Netanyahu’s comments following the meeting seemed to suggest that Russia would not seek to limit Israel’s attacks on Syrian territory. Some outlets attributed Putin’s apparent decision to give Israel leeway in Syria a result of “a long-running Israeli courting of Russian sensitivities.”
Then, after the strikes had occurred, several news outlets – including Reuters,Business Insider and others – suggested Putin had given the “green light” to Israel’s air strikes on Syria, in light of Netanyahu’s “upbeat” comments following the meeting, as well as the meeting’s timing, which occurred just hours beforehand. If true, Putin’s willingness to approve Israel’s most significant attack on Syria since 1974 certainly leaves plenty of room to reassess Russia’s commitment to shielding the Syrian government from attacks by Israel — or other countries, for that matter.
Adding to the appearance that Russia was reneging in its commitment to its Syrian allies was the subsequent announcement that it would no longer be providing Syria with the powerful S-300 missile defense system. Following the strikes launched against Syria by the U.S., U.K., and France in late April, Russia hinted it would deliver the missile defense system to Syria to protect the country from hostile attacks by foreign powers.
However, just two days after Putin’s meeting with Netanyahu, Russia announced it would not be supplying the S-300 system to Syria, stating that Syria has “everything it needs” to withstand foreign attacks. Again, most reports on Russia’s apparent change of heart suggested Netanyahu’s visit was responsible for the decision, noting the Israeli prime minister had been “lobbying Putin hard not to transfer the missiles” for some time.
At first glance, the situation certainly seems to indicate Russian involvement in Syria may indeed be entering a new phase and that Israel, one of the foreign “masterminds” behind the Syrian conflict, is finally gaining the upper hand in its bid to remove Assad from power and gain full control over the strategic Golan Heights.
Yet, there is another side to the story that has been left out of these accounts, one that suggests the Israeli government has used Netanyahu’s recent visit to Russia as an opportunity to drive a wedge through the Russian-Syrian alliance, an alliance which has proven critical to the Syrian government since Russia first became involved in the conflict in 2015.
Indeed, prior to the strikes, there had more or less been a consensus that Israel was increasingly desperate that its involvement in the Syrian conflict was not going it’s way.
Could this new narrative of Russia cozying up to Israel and distancing itself from Syria be a desperate act by Israel to create an impression that it now has the upper hand?
Fake transponders and phantom green light?
While reports on the Putin/Netanyahu meeting certainly suggest Putin approved Israel’s strikes beforehand, information from local sources and independent analysts suggest that narrative – based solely on Netanyahu’s post-meeting comments – was largely inaccurate. As journalist Elijah Magnier noted, the meeting with Netanyahu was much more tense than described by most media, with Putin expressing disdain for Israel’s bombing of Syria’s T4 Airbase in early April, just 50 meters from a Russian military position.
Information from sources within Syria and from the Syrian Arab Army also offered counter-narratives that reject the notion that Putin “greenlit” Israel’s strikes on Syria. Those sources alleged that Israeli jets, which took part in the strike, used a U.S. transponder signal to masquerade as U.S. fighter jets. Given that Syrian and Russian forces are under orders not to fire on jets transmitting U.S. transponder signals – in the hopes of avoiding a wider conflict – this ruse would have allowed Israeli jets to fly into Syria via its ally Jordan with little incident.
Earlier this month, a source in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Syria reported that Israeli jets had been using U.S. transponder signals to move freely in Syrian airspace, suggesting the tactic had been used by Israel prior to last Thursday’s strikes.
If true, this would mean that it is highly unlikely that Putin “greenlit” anything, as there was no way of knowing that those jets using U.S. transponder signals were not of U.S. origin and because allowing the jets to use those transponder signals would threaten the understanding between the U.S. and Russian militaries, a risk Putin was unlikely to take.
It would mean that Israel deliberately endangered the understanding between U.S. and Russian forces to respect flight paths of their respective fighter jets, which could potentially have dangerous consequences, as it would erode the trust that served as a basis for that understanding. Sources within the Syrian Arab Army also suggested that Netanyahu approved the use of U.S. transponders before his meeting with Putin, giving the subsequent Israeli strikes the appearance that they were approved by Putin and in turn sowing distrust between Russia, Syria and Iran.
Missile defense move misinterpreted?
The possibility that Putin did not “green light” Israel’s attack on Syria appears to be just one piece of the geopolitical chess-game that is the Syrian conflict, and speculation on Russia’s apparent about-face on delivery of its powerful S-300 air defense system to Syria suggests that this too is not quite what it seems.
While most reports have linked Russia’s public statements on the S-300 delivery to Netanyahu’s lobbying efforts targeting Putin, most fail to note that Syria has been attempting to purchase the S-300 system from Russia since 2009-2010 and that Russia hesitated over the years due to the complexities of the Syrian conflict and fear of driving it towards a broader regional or even global conflict.
It is also possible that Russia still intends to deliver the S-300 system to Syria but wants to publicly distance itself from the move. Given Israel’s threat to attack any S-300 installation sites or deliveries before they go online in Syria, coupled with the fact that S-300s are already present at Russian military installations in the country, the scenario is hardly implausible.
Indeed, after the U.S., U.K. and France attacked Syria last month, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted “we never announced these deliveries as such. However, we said that after the strikes, Russia reserves the right to do whatever it deems necessary,” leaving the possible open that delivery of the S-300 could still be made, just not publicly. Bolstering the possibility was a comment in late April by Syrian ambassador to Russia, Riyad Haddad, who told reporters that S-300 systems had already been delivered to Syria in March.
A Russian military and diplomatic source later denied Haddad’s claim, but a sudden increase in the number of Russian freighters in the Syrian port of Tartus in April fueled speculation that Haddad’s claims were true, particularly since some of the Russian cargo ships deployed smoke screens, blinding foreign spy planes, drones and satellites from observing what they were unloading.
Netanyahu mind games?
If Russia’s alleged “green lighting” was an indeed an intentional ploy on the part of Netanyahu to spread distrust through the key alliance of Russia and Syria and Iran, if would not be without precedent, as Netanyahu has been known to resort to similar tactics, including his recent presentation on Iran’s so-called “Atomic Archive,” where he presented old information on Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions as groundbreaking new evidence. In fact the whole foundation for the “green light” narrative came exclusively from Netanyahu’s comments combined with the timing of the strike, which came just hours after Putin and Netanyahu met.
Israel stands to gain significantly from fomenting distrust between Russia and Syria. As the foreign-funded proxy war targeting the Assad-led government in Syria has largely failed, weakening Assad’s most critical alliance by making Putin appear to have been complicit in a major Israeli air strike against Syrian Army bases would certainly benefit the Israeli government. Even Assad himself noted that Russia is largely to thank for “saving” the country from regime change efforts at the hands of foreign governments and their proxies. Were that alliance to weaken, it would give Israel, whose defense minister just a week ago spoke of “liquidating” the Syrian government, a new opening.
Israel’s apparent influence over Putin also distracts from other embarrassing news that came as a result of its attack on Syria, such as the apparent failure of its much-touted but often dysfunctional Iron Dome missile defense system, which managed to shoot down only four of the twenty Syrian missiles launched into Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In contrast, Syria’s 30-year-old Russian-made missile defense system downed more than half of the 70 missiles Israel fired in and around Damascus.
The Israeli government has been careful to prevent the proliferation of images or information showing the damage caused by the 16 Syrian missiles that landed in the Golan Heights, instead publicly claiming it has eliminated the “Iranian threat” (i.e., presence) in Syria.
As some analysts noted, Israel’s statement signaling success seems to be an indicator that it does not want to go any further, and bears remarkable similarities to the country’s claim on the second day of its 2006 war with Lebanon that it had destroyed all of Hezbollah’s long-range missiles – a claim which quickly proved to be false.
Last Thursday’s exchange of missiles between Israel and Syria has changed the rules of engagement regarding Israeli airstrikes in Syria, opening the Israeli occupied Golan Heights to counter-attacks and ending Israel’s ability to attack Syria with impunity. The narrative that Netanyahu is pushing Putin away from Assad serves Israel’s interests, allowing it to appear to have the upper hand in terms of its involvement in Syria, and covering up a very different reality playing out on the ground.
Top Photo | Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, toast during a reception after the Victory Parade in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik via AP)