Elijah J. Magnier | @ejmalrai
The Israeli Air Force is conducting intensive manoeuvres with its F-35 Adirs along with F-16s over Lebanese airspace to counter the threat posed by the three battalion sets of S-300PM missiles systems delivered by Moscow to Damascus so that Tel Aviv can resume its bombing of targets in Syria. Despite the lack of available data on S-300 efficiency, the presence of these missiles represents a danger to the Israeli Air Force and its violation of Lebanese and Syrian airspace. It is clear that Israel will not cease testing Syrian patience, violating the country’s airspace using the excuse of “protecting its own national security”.
Informed sources said: “Tel Aviv and Moscow have never ceased their regular coordination to monitor and avoid air incidents over the Levant. The downing of the Russian IL-20 and the death of all its 15 crewmen forced Israel to communicate its belligerent intentions much ahead of time to Russia, to put its jets and personnel in safety. Indeed, it was the downing of the IL-20 that speeded up Russia’s delivery of the long-awaited S-300 to Syria.
Although Russia possesses high-frequency VHF, tracking systems and radar capable of detecting the F-35 and making it visible, it is another matter to shoot it down with the S-300. Russia’s answer to this theory? “Let the Israelis test our system and we shall see the results”.
However, Israel can fly low, violating Lebanese airspace and avoiding Syrian radar so as to hit objectives in Syria from afar. To avoid this only too plausible scenario, Syria needs to establish a missile protected radar coverage on the eastern chain of mountains on its border with Lebanon, so as to be able to “see” all Israeli jets and the air movement above Lebanon and Israel at all times.
The Russian position hasn’t changed and it will keep its distance from the Israeli – “Axis of the Resistance” (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) struggle. Russia is trying its best to avoid failure in the Middle East and to impose peace- or at least a state of non-war. This is evident from the numerous Astana meetings and the chance given to Turkey to reduce the danger of Jihadists in Idlib, to avoid a large-scale attack on the city and its rural areas. Moscow is also offering a possibility – through active negotiation – to the US to pull out its troops from the Iraq-Syria crossing, al-Tanf, that has become a burden on Washington’s forces, due to the presence of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to feed, offer medical attention and protect. Moreover, Russia has never ceased its contact with the Kurds in al-Hasaka and Deir-ezzour (under US occupation), to maintain relations with a view to a future after the US withdrawal and to foster reconciliation between the Syrian government and the Kurds.
But that is not the only Russian activity in the Levant: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has invited many Lebanese officials and political party leaders to Moscow. Bogdanov, according to sources who actually attended these meetings, appears well informed about Lebanese dynamics and is asking the Lebanese about their preference for the (new) President. This practice hasn’t been carried out by Russia for decades and indicates today its plans to stay in the Middle East, maybe replacing the US-EU role, or at least sharing the influence on the region.
According to these sources, Bogdanov spoke also about Hezbollah, describing the organisation as composed of “disciplined and great fighters”. Thousands of Hezbollah fought along-side with Russian forces in Syria in the last years of war.
“Hezbollah is standing in the way of Israel’s plans of expansion in the Lebanon. Nevertheless, Russia doesn’t have animosity towards Israel or Hezbollah, she is trying to conserve a peaceful status that imposes a non-war relationship between Israel and Hezbollah”, said the source quoting the Russian official.
Sources informed about Russia’s policy said “Moscow’s relationship with Iran and Hezbollah blossoms when the US and the West establish a bad relationship with Russia. It is therefore not right to count on Russia to play an active role: Moscow has decided to hold the stick in the middle”.
Russia doesn’t inform its partners in Syria about Israeli intentions and bombing as long as its plan in the Levant is not affected and that the Israeli bombing is limited. However, the Israelis have managed to destroy most of the Syrian Army military warehouses, weakening its capability. Russia brought in the S-300 not only for the downing of the IL-20 but also to re-establish and preserve this balance. Nevertheless, sources close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad say “Syria has many cards still to be played, in due course”.
“A balance of power can be established between Israel and Syria, similar to the one imposed by Hezbollah in 1996 and in the year 2006 (bombing settlements when Israel bombs indiscriminate targets). Nevertheless, Syria cannot yet impose such a balance because of an extra factor: the US presence in al-Tanaf and al-Hasaka. Also, Turkish forces are still in Idlib and the danger from Jihadists is not yet over”, said the source.
Israel will find it difficult to stop targeting objectives in Syria, while Damascus has the finger on the trigger of the S-300 and other anti-air missiles. It is not certain how long Moscow will be able to hold onto its neutral stand, particularly now that its sphere of influence seems enlarging beyond Syria into Lebanon.