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December 30, 2018 8:48 am

Israel Has No Choice But to Operate in Syria

avatar by Yoav Limor /

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Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters celebrate the first anniversary of the liberation of the Raqqa Province from ISIS, Oct. 27, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Aboud Hamam.

JNS.orgA reported Israeli strike in Syria on ‎Wednesday ‎was, according to foreign media reports, a clear ‎signal that despite the strategic changes in the ‎region, Israel will continue to adhere to its declared policy of ‎preventing Iran from entrenching itself militarily ‎in the war-torn country, and preventing Tehran ‎from arming Hezbollah, its regional proxy, with ‎advanced weapons. ‎

Wednesday’s strike, which reportedly targeted several ‎Hezbollah ‎leaders and Iranian ‎ammunition ‎depots near ‎Damascus, was the largest raid since the ‎September 17 incident in which a Russian reconnaissance ‎plane was downed by Syria air defenses responding to an Israeli airstrike.‎

Russia was furious over Wednesday’s operation, ‎saying that the strike placed civilian aircraft in harm’s ‎way, but foreign-media reports have quoted unnamed ‎officials as saying that the Russians were informed in advance ‎of the raid through the operational hotline that Israeli ‎and Russian forces maintain.

If this was indeed the Israeli Air Force’s ‎handiwork, Russia’s castigation is likely intended ‎for several ears: first, for the Syrians, who must ‎be wondering why Moscow allows Israel to continue ‎operating freely in their airspace; second, for ‎leaders near and far, with the aim of reaffirming ‎Russia’s status as the dominant superpower in the ‎Middle East; and third, most importantly, for ‎Israel, which again learned that the Kremlin is no ‎longer willing to turn a blind eye to such ‎operations, and may in the future translate its ‎disapproval into various measures on the ground.‎

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The Russian claim that Syrian air defenses ‎intercepted most of the IAF’s missiles should, as ‎usual, be taken with a grain of salt. Syrian air ‎defenses did launch dozens of missiles at their ‎targets, so it is reasonable to assume they were at least somewhat successful, but Moscow’s sweeping claim is likely motivated by an effort to prove that Russia’s S-‎‎300 missile defense systems provided to Syria are ‎superior to American defense systems. ‎

This is a struggle between the superpowers in which ‎Israel is merely a pawn and one where no punches, ‎even half-truths, are pulled.‎ This has created a delicate equation that requires ‎Israel to tiptoe between the lines, especially given ‎Donald Trump’s decision last week to ‎withdraw all American troops from Syria. ‎

Israel will undoubtedly have to counter Iranian and ‎Hezbollah moves in the future — perhaps the ‎very near future. Moscow will no longer be as ‎sympathetic to such action and it falls to Israel to ‎spare no effort to foster the necessary ‎understandings so as to avoid mistakes, and ‎especially to avert a situation where an offensive ‎move devolves into a strategic problem.‎

This is not impossible, and it seems that Israel can ‎still maintain the necessary operational leeway as ‎long as it maintains prudence and engages in selective action, ‎as it has been doing in recent months.‎ Meanwhile, the mounting tensions with Syria are ‎offset by relative calm on the Israel-Lebanon ‎border, as Israel’s counter-tunnel operation seems ‎to be nearing its end. ‎

Operation Northern Shield, launched on December 4 with ‎aim of detecting and destroying a network of ‎Hezbollah terror tunnels snaking under the border, ‎has so far unearthed five underground passageways ‎breaching Israeli territory.‎ Defense officials believe the operation will be ‎completed within two weeks, at which point the IDF ‎will refocus its attention on completing the new ‎border fence, and Hezbollah will undoubtedly try to ‎compensate for its loses by devising new ways to ‎‎“conquer the Galilee” in the next war.‎

The IDF is convinced that Hezbollah will not waste ‎any more resources on digging tunnels, but rather ‎look for new ways to challenge the Israeli military ‎in the northern sector. ‎

One of the things to look out for is whether the ‎Shiite terrorist group will accelerate its ‎precision-missile development program in Lebanon, ‎something that would cause tensions in the sector to ‎spike and even trigger another war. ‎Israel must meet this challenge by being fully prepared ‎both militarily and diplomatically, meaning it must ‎also ensure it has international legitimacy to act. ‎This is another key reason to resolve, or at least ‎downplay, the ongoing disagreements with Russia. ‎

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

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