The furor over the sale of Russian S-300 anti-air missiles to Syria has served Moscow for ducking a head-to-head with Washington and shifting some of the action over to the Israeli playing field.
On Tuesday, May 28, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon asserted that the shipment of Russia S-300 missiles for Syria had not yet embarked for its destination.
The missiles are a threat, he said: “I can testify that the deal is not making headway. The shipments have not left yet. Let's hope they won't, and if they do, we'll know what to do."
Thursday, May 30, National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror was quoted as saying that if the Russian S-300 missiles reached Syria, Israel would strike them before they became operational.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens said he does not believe Russia will send these missiles to Syria because Moscow knows the Israeli Air Force could destroy them.
For this reason, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, Moscow has kept on reminding everyone that the missile batteries will come accompanied by Russian officers. And therefore, if Israel attacks them while still in crates, it risked harming Russian maintenance officers.
In the harsh words on this eventuality exchanged between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when they met at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 14, both were careful not to spell out what exactly would happen if Israel went through with demolishing the missiles and causing Russian military casualties.
Moscow shifts the action from Washington to the Israeli playing field
It was on Tuesday night that a big Russian transport plane landed at Syria’s Latakia airport carrying 60 tons of unidentified freight labeled "humanitarian aid to Syria."
This label most likely concealed a military shipment of some kind, or even possibly components of the S-300 batteries.
In a sneering comment aimed at Israel, Syrian President Bashar Assad told an interviewer at the Hizballah Al Manar TV Thursday, that the first shipment of Russian S-300 missiles had already arrived in Syria and the second consignment was on its way.
By claiming that the S-300 had reached Syria and would shortly be operational, Damascus and Moscow were throwing down the gauntlet for Jerusalem and goading Israel and its armed forces to see if they would make good on their threats to bomb them.
(A potential duel between the Israeli Air Force and Russian missiles is discussed in a separate report.)
The situation presented by this standoff has three main components:
1. Assad backed by Moscow is thrusting the S-300 provocation in Israel’s face. Taking a leaf out of Iran’s nuclear book, President Vladimir Putin and his advisers on the Middle East are counting on President Barack Obama keeping Israel’s hands tied firmly against bombing the Russian batteries - just as the US president stalled an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Will Israel get US backup against reprisals for striking the S-300s?
2. Before striking the S-300 missiles, Israel needs to invoke a US guarantee of military backup in case a strike on the Russian anti-air missiles spirals into a major and continuous conflict with the allied forces gathered in Syria around Bashar Assad. This US backup might come in the form of advanced US weapons systems for giving Israel the edge over Russian weaponry.
3. The Netanyahu government and Israel’s war leaders must prepare for Obama to reject or only partially meet Israel’s request for guaranteed US backup. This would be consistent with his refusal to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict. Once again, the US administration may leave Israel the single option of acting alone in its defense.
Israel’s leaders understand that their failure to knock out the S-300 missiles before Syria uses them to keep Israeli warplanes confined to their hangars, will come at a high price in terms of credibility and deterrence. No one will any longer credit Israel with the will to exercise its military option for preempting a nuclear Iran .
Both the US and Israel have already paid a price for letting thousands of Hizballah fighters cross into Syria and fight for Assad. They acted on the assumption that military intervention would make Syria “Hizballah’s Vietnam.” By the end of this week, neither Washington nor Jerusalem was sure this of this, and beginning to appreciate their error.
Washington wakes up to menace of Hizballah in Syria
On Wednesday, May 29, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki finally came out with a statement demanding the withdrawal of Hizballah forces from Syria and calling their presence “unacceptable” and “dangerous.”
Ignoring Washington, a fresh Hizballah contingent made its way into Syria Thursday, May 30.
(See the item on Hizballah's military functions in Syria).
The new force was not sent to any of the three active war fronts where Hizballah troops were already fighting - Damascus, Al Qusayr and Homs – but to the city of Deraa, capital of the southern Horan region bordering on the Golan.
This brought a Hizballah force to within 30 kilometers of the Israeli Golan. Under surveillance, these troops were seen gearing up to stay on the move with equipment that included Iran-made missiles with a range of 150-200 kilometers and multiple-firing Katyusha rockets with a range of 50 kilometers.
The Lebanese Shiites are therefore in position to start attacking Israeli targets on the Golan at any time.
In a television interview Thursday night at the close of this issue, Syrian President Assad said the Syrian government would not stand in the way of groups wishing to fight Israel for “the liberation of the Golan.”
Hizballah in position for missile war from Golan
All this portends the end of the 1974 Israel-Syrian separation of forces accord which gave the Golan almost forty years of peace. Israel is being shaken awake to a radical change in its security situation: Instead of facing Hizballah’s hostility from Lebanon, Israel (along with Jordan), is about to be confronted by Hassan Nasrallah’s militant units, rather than Syrian troops, from across the Golan border.
Moscow, Damascus and Beirut have made their moves. Israel will have to find out whether it is destined to face this multiple menace alone or can count on US support.