Israel has taken Damascus Airport out of service after seven years of attacks on specific points in and around the airfield, which contain advanced Iranian weapons stocks related to anti-aircraft missiles, precision-guided surface-to-surface missiles, and modern Iranian multitasking drones. However, the new development created a threat issued by Iran transmitted through Russia that a direct response against Israel would follow any Israeli attack on its positions in Syria. Therefore, Russia summoned the Israeli ambassador to say that the attack on the Damascus airport violated all red lines and that it would take the case to the Security Council to condemn Israel’s violation of international law.
Several years ago, Russia promised the Damascus government that its main airport would not be subjected to any Israeli attack. However, this did not happen, and Israel continued its uninterrupted attacks on runways and civilian and military air traffic, which has not stopped since 1970 and not even during the war. However, in recent weeks, Tel Aviv has gone too far by hitting the northern and southern runways several times to make the airport totally unusable. Damascus has officially announced that its airport has been severely damaged and has stopped functioning.
However, a source in Damascus confirmed that unique materials had been used to help reopen the airport in less than two weeks, with a clear new Russian commitment that any attack would be met with a response similar to Israel’s bombing directly.
Moscow has taken the case for Israeli aggression to another level, expressing its intentions to submit a draft resolution to the UN Security Council condemning the attack on the Damascus airport. Even if the US uses its veto, the Russian move indicates that Moscow believes the time has come to warn Israel to stop its insistence, especially as it has taken an anti-Russian stance in the Ukrainian war.
Last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov summoned the Israeli ambassador to Moscow, Ben Zvi, and asked for clarification, saying that he is “not satisfied with the justifications and is waiting for further clarification.” This indicates a change in the relationship that is no longer limited to Russian and Israeli military officers coordinating with each other in Syria. Instead, the regulation of the relationship between Russia and Israel has gone to the highest political level, to the level of the leaders and the top of the pyramid.
There is no doubt that it is a remarkable and unprecedented position that Russia is taking to condemn Israel after having condoned it hundreds of times, even when one of the Israeli attacks caused a Russian plane carrying 15 officers to crash in September 2018.
Russia tells the Israelis that their attack on Damascus airport undermines stability and violates Syria’s sovereignty. Therefore, Moscow will demand that those responsible be held accountable because this impedes Syria’s humanitarian assistance. This is a (already late) wake-up call as Israel has claimed to have bombed Syria more than 1,500 times in recent years. Most of these attacks occurred during the presence of Russian forces in Syria since 2015.
Israel also claims to be responsible for 400 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria. Iranian sources in Damascus say that this claim of the attacks is fabricated and inaccurate and that many attacks have hit worthless targets such as kitchens, abandoned sites, and occasionally other sites containing weapons depots, being destroyed.
Israel claims that its goal is to weaken the Iranian-Syrian alliance. However, it has failed to create a distance between the two countries. This was demonstrated by President Bashar al-Assad’s visit last May. Assad reiterated the need for the presence of Iranian military advisors in the country and the continued cooperation between the two governments at all levels. Soon after his visit to Tehran, two Iranian tankers arrived at the Baniyas refinery to help Damascus in its oil crisis caused by the American occupation in northeastern Syria, which is Syria’s energy (and food) depot. The harsh sanctions of the US “Caesar Act” also play an influential role in targeting the Syrian population and weakening the central government in Damascus, bringing it even closer to Tehran.
The possibility that Russian oligarchs close to Tel Aviv have lost their privilege of authority and support for Israel with President Vladimir Putin is not ruled out, especially after Israeli military and political aid flowed to Ukraine. In addition to the stern warning issued by Iran that any Israeli attack against it in Syria will be met with a swift response, Tehran confirmed that it would not be the only one to confront Israel because Lebanon and Syria are part of the “Axis of Resistance.”
Russia has always distanced itself from the Iranian-Israeli conflict in Syria. However, the Israeli attacks were aimed at crippling Syrian economic accesses (the port and the airport) and hitting Syrian infrastructure, not just the arms shipments that flow daily from Iran to Syria across land borders.
Iran has provided Syria with precision missile factories. Tehran has offered air defense systems to Damascus, especially after the continued delay in replacing Russian anti-aircraft systems in Syria, many of which have been damaged and destroyed by Israeli attacks.
Iranian sources in Damascus believe that “Israel only understands the logic of force and that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has failed – like his predecessors – to separate Iran from Syria. On the contrary, the relationship has become much stronger today due to continued Israeli attacks, Russia’s positively neutral attitude, and harsh U.S. sanctions against Assad.
Consequently, it will be up to the Syrian leadership to seek a way to restore the balance and impose deterrence on Israel that can only be achieved by a firm decision to retaliate for every Israeli attack. The Syrian president fears the outbreak of a new war with Israel while his forces are focused on preventing Turkey from annexing more territories in the north. The threat from jihadists and Turkey’s allies in and around Idlib has never stopped, as have the attacks by ISIS remnants.
However, Iran is not bound by Assad’s decision and can respond to Israel in different ways, in various theaters and even directly when necessary. That is why the latest warning was sent by Moscow, and it will be up to Israel to decide whether it will attack Iranian targets in Syria or be limited to attacking only the Syrian army.
Israel enjoys international protection and knows the language of war, killing, assassinating and sabotaging acts. It attacks any country under the rubric of pre-emptive strike if the government is unable to respond. It has hit the port of Latakia, Mezzeh, Aleppo and Damascus airports, including destroying military and civilian targets. Israel has used Syrian territory as a training and maneuvering ground for its air force and its long-range missiles. While Russia wants Damascus to put all its eggs in its own basket and ward off Iranian influence, Moscow’s soft approach toward Israel strongly discourages Syria from taking distance from Iran. Russian state interests do not always converge with Syria’s interests.
After ten years of bombing, what has Israel achieved? Disrupt but not end the presence of the Iranian military and its allies. Each shipment of weapons destroyed was exchanged for another the next day. If Israel bombs highways to slow troop movement, Iran and Hezbollah use secondary roads. If Israel attacks above-ground weapons sites, Iran builds underground facilities. Until now, the “Axis of Resistance” has refrained from using advanced weapons because these are meant to be used in wartime to affect the enemy’s morale, provoke a reluctance among the attacking forces, and enforce a cease-fire when faced with new lethal weapons.
Israel and Russia have contributed to bringing Damascus closer to Tehran than ever before. Consequently, Moscow’s new position will not change Israeli behavior much, except when Iranian missiles begin to fall inside Israel or deliver a solid blow to Israel. Therefore, such a decision is in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad and no one but him can impose deterrence on Israel, regardless of what Iran can and will do.
Elijah J Magnier is a veteran war correspondent and senior political risk analyst with over three decades of experience.