September 27, 2018 — Jerusalem, Israel
By Eran Lerman
Murphy, goes the saying, was an optimist. He may also be a serving officer in the Syrian Air Defense Force. Everything that could go wrong went wrong with a vengeance on the night of September 17, when four Israeli Air Force F-16s launched a successfully destructive raid on a warehouse in Latakia where sensitive military items destined for delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon were apparently stored. For years, the IAF had been carrying out attacks, based on highly detailed intelligence, against such technology transfers as well as against the establishment of an Iranian military presence in Syria. This has come to be called "the Campaign Between the Wars" (MaBaM is its Hebrew acronym). By the IDF's own count, more than 200 such raids have been launched in the last two years alone.
This time, however, the target was in an area not often marked by Israeli counter-activity. Latakia is a coastal town at the heart of the 'Alawi part of Syria, close to the Russian bases at Tartus and Hmeimim. As the Syrian Air Defense, caught by surprise, fired wildly and pointlessly well after the IAF planes were back in Israeli airspace, an S-200 missile hit and destroyed a Russian Ilyushin-20M, an intelligence-gathering surveillance and control aircraft (known in NATO as "Coot A"), which was coming in from patrol over the Mediterranean, killing all 15 hands on board. The IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) system failed, no sufficient precautions were taken, and questions have been raised about the Syrians' competence (according to one report, the officers involved have been detained by the Russians and are held in Hmeimim. But coming, as it does, from opposition sources, this could be "fake news").
None of this deterred the highly aggrieved Russians from reacting right away, blaming the incident – in which their own men were killed by their own system that they had supplied to their own client – firmly and aggressively on Israel. While Putin himself was initially cautious, speaking of a tragic sequence of events, the Russian military establishment concocted a version that somehow seemed less hurtful to its pride and much in line with its conspiratorial prejudices: namely, that the F-16s were "hiding" behind the Il-20 so as to deliberately mislead the hapless Syrians. With this version as holy writ, the Russians rejected the detailed explanation offered by the Commander of the IAF, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, on a special mission to Moscow. Instead, they used the opportunity to persuade Putin to agree to something they have pushed for a long time, but was postponed indefinitely at Israel's past requests: namely, the sale to Syria of advanced S-300 Air Defense Missiles and other technologies which would improve Syrian capacities (and restrict Israel's freedom of action).
To be sure, something like this was bound to happen at some point, given the growing Syrian impatience regarding Israel's continued capacity to operate against Syrian targets with almost total impunity (one Israeli F-16 was lost to enemy action, hit by a Syrian missile in February 2018). But for three years following the Russian military intervention in September 2015 and Netanyahu's subsequent visit to Moscow, careful deconfliction mechanisms were agreed to and implemented between Russia and Israel. This procedure, which continues to operate uninterrupted and involves a "hot line" between the IAF HQ and the Russian base in Hmeimim, is based upon Russia’s realization that Israel will continue to go after Iranian targets but does not seek the demise of the Assad regime unless no other choice is left open. There are thus practical reasons to sustain the deconfliction system.
Iranians in Syria
Pride and prejudice aside, such practicalities may well prevail after enough time is given for the dust to settle. New, improved protocols for de-confliction may need to be discussed so as to guard against future "Murphys." Israel will modify, but not abandon, the operational patterns of the Campaign Between the Wars; and the Russians, quietly, may come to the conclusion that their interests in Syria would be better served if the Iranians did not have the freedom to use the country as they wish. Channels of political dialog will also remain open, although it will be a while before Netanyahu and Putin meet again. There is too much at stake for both sides: and for Israel, there is also a vital interest to demonstrate to foe and friend alike that even such events will not deflect her from the overarching purpose of preventing Iran from gaining a steady, massive presence in Syria.
Will the S-300 systems jeopardize Israel's ability to do so? The answer lies in the details. And the Russians may face some dilemmas of their own. The game of electronic warfare measures and counter-measures has been going on for several decades, and Israel was never left behind in terms of her own home-made capabilities. Thus, the Russians may want to rethink the wisdom of exposing one of their more prestigious systems to the prospect of defeat by effective responses. Moreover, the S-300 batteries will not be handed to the Syrians overnight, for obvious reasons. There has even been a hint from Russia that this question, and other aspects of its presence in Syria, may be negotiable, if the U.S. would be willing to meet and seek an overall understanding on Syrian (and other) affairs.
Where is the U.S.?
This may not be a bad idea. The time has come – to paraphrase Trump's words on another issue – to recognize reality and accept that Assad has in fact regained control over much of his country, with Russian help, and it is increasingly pointless not to deal with him on that basis. At the same time, if the U.S. will firmly maintain its presence in eastern Syria in support of the (largely Kurdish) Syrian Democratic Forces, a deal could be made with Russia from a position of strength, which may include the S-300 deal as well as the question of Iran's presence. Israeli commentators noted sadly that as Israel faces the dilemma of how to deal with Putin's policy in Syria, the U.S. "is not there." But this need not remain the case.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.