Israeli planes carried out strikes against military targets belonging to the Assad regime and its allies on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog group reported. The attacks caused material damage, but no casualties were reported.
The bombardment came after several attacks on targets associated with the Syrian regime in recent weeks, for which Israel has been blamed. Perhaps most notable was the death of a Syrian official last week, also attributed to Israel.
Midhat Saleh, a former Syrian MP and head of the Syrian Golan Heights Affairs Office, was shot dead by an Israeli sniper on October 16 in a Syrian village on the border with Israel.
Saleh was born in Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the controversial Golan Heights on the Israeli side of the border, and previously spent 12 years in an Israeli prison after being convicted of acting against Israel’s security forces. He left for Syria after being released from prison in 1998. Israeli media reported that Israel viewed Saleh as the middleman between the Assad regime, Iran, Hezbollah and the Iranian-backed militias in the Syrian Golan, aiding the Iranian entrenchment in the borders of Israel.
The Syrian state news agency SANA blamed Israel for the official’s death. The Israeli army, as is its policy, has not spoken.
Russia is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has a military presence in the country; However, Moscow has ignored alleged Israeli attacks on regime targets. Against these frequent attacks as a backdrop, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Friday.
Housing and Construction Minister Zeev Elkin, who was present at the meeting as he has been at all meetings between Israeli leaders and Putin in the last decade where he has also served as a translator, said it was exceptionally warm. According to Elkin, the two leaders agreed to a continuation of Israel’s policy toward Syria, including its air strikes against targets in the country.
Zvi Magen, former Israeli ambassador to Moscow and senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said that “Israel acts exclusively against Iran. [and Iranian-affiliated] targets in Syria. “
“Iran is preparing for … a clash with Israel, building its infrastructure and arming Hezbollah, so Israel is acting against this,” he said. Russia and Israel have long coordinated on this, while Moscow has also been cooperating with Tehran in Syria.
Two recent events make Russia’s silent support for Israel’s alleged attacks on Assad’s army and officials understandable, says Magen. “Lately, there has been some tension in Syria because Iran would like to expel the others [Russia and Turkey] and remain just to take over Syria, “he said, adding:” The Russians probably don’t like this, to put it lightly. “Recent targets in Syria were not only tied to Assad, but also to Iran and Iran. its representative, Hezbollah.
Magen also explains that a greater effort is being made to reach an agreement in Syria that will allow the war-torn country to put the pieces together and begin to rebuild. This effort, in which Israel could be a partner, has been encouraged not only by the Russians, but also by the United States and parts of the Arab world. “This requires the expulsion of foreign forces from Syria,” Magen explained, and Iranian efforts to entrench itself in the country are in direct contradiction.
The Israeli attacks on Assad are arguably convenient for Russia not only because they reduce Iranian greed at the expense of its alleged partners in stabilizing Syria, but also because they lay the foundation for a future settlement for the country.
Dr. Joshua Krasna, Principal Investigator of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University, highlights two Russian interests that may be behind his attitude towards the attacks. Israel: Assad’s stronghold position of the regime and the maintenance of good relations between Moscow and Israel. And these two factors coincide, he says.
“The situation of the Syrian regime in general is improving,” Krasna said, pointing to improving relations with other Arab states as an example. The Iranian presence in Syria, however, is a source of instability, mostly due to active opposition from Israel. An escalation between Israel and Assad or their Iranian allies could significantly affect attempts to stabilize the country. Working against Iran’s presence in Syria has also acted as a justification for enhancing its ties with the Assad regime, Krasna explained.
However, he says: “I think the Russians know much better than we do that there is no real way to overthrow Iran in a short or intermediate period of time.” Iran and its proxies, Krasna explains, are deeply embedded in the Assad regime’s survival apparatus. Removing them quickly could damage the regime’s position. However, acting to limit them and gradually lessen their influence could be a way forward, and one served by Israel’s actions.
Israel’s ability to disrupt the work of Iran and its proxies in Syria is not the only reason Russia is willing to coordinate with Israel. “Good relations with Israel are an advantage” for the Russians, Krasna said. Keeping Israel’s interests and concerns in view and resolving disagreements behind closed doors serve to preserve them.