With the U.S. withdrawal of its forces from Syria will Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recklessness lead to confrontation with Russia?
By Richard Walker
In an effort to exploit the planned exit of U.S. special forces and mercenaries from Syria, Israeli officials are promising to continue bombing that country in violation of international law.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying it would be business as usual, but he might want to consider the fact that Russia will not allow him free rein to bomb Syria as he likes. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear to him that there are some lines he should not cross. One is killing or targeting Russian military personnel in Syria. Another is Russian personnel becoming collateral damage of Israeli attacks on other targets.
In the past three years, Israel has bombed Syria several hundred times in a clear breach of international law. It claims that its bombing of a sovereign state is justified by its need for defense. Of course, this is a false legal argument.
UN Charter 51 states specifically that a UN mandate is required by any country wishing to launch a war against another, and if self-defense is used as justification, the country launching a war must have been attacked. Syria has never attacked Israel, but as with so much of Israel’s foreign policy, it has been willing to flout international law, because Israelis know there will be no repercussions for its lawlessness. There are few countries in the region that have not been the target of Israel’s air force or of its assassination squads.
President Donald Trump’s decision to fulfill his electoral promise to take troops out of Syria has angered Israel because it has consistently used U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict as a cover for launching hundreds of air and ground strikes into Syria and Lebanon. With the White House announcement of the pullout, Netanyahu and members of his hard-right cabinet announced that attacks on Syria would continue unabated and might be increased.
Israel’s strategy has been to exploit the Syrian conflict to target Iranian military advisers and Iranian-backed militias who have been fighting ISIS, al Qaeda, and the al-Nusra Front alongside Syrian and Russian military forces. In contrast, ISIS has never been Israel’s priority. In fact, Israel has armed, trained, and provided medical care to al-Nusra fighters. It has been focused on killing Iranians, hoping to goad Iran and Hezbollah into a full-blown conflict that would draw in the U.S. military and Netanyahu’s new allies, the Saudis. In that respect, Netanyahu likely has a backer in National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has made it clear he would like to bomb Iran. Netanyahu, nevertheless, has been accused by Israelis of bombing Syria and hyping an Iran threat from there to deflect from corruption charges he faces at home as new elections get closer.
With the U.S. pullout, Israeli military planners are facing a new and potentially deadly issue, namely the continued presence of Russian forces and their S-400 missile batteries. Those, and the S-300 batteries Moscow gave the Syrian government, have already had a limiting effect on Israeli air incursions into Syrian airspace. Russia’s military has warned Israel that there will be serious consequences if it targets Russian forces or if Russian military personnel are casualties of an attack on Syria or Iranian targets.
There is no love lost between Putin and Netanyahu following the shooting down of an Ilyushin IL-20M Russian surveillance plane over Syria in 2018. The downing of the plane resulted in the deaths of 15 Russian personnel on board.
The propeller plane, a flying command post, was shot down by missiles fired from older Russian S-200 anti-aircraft batteries operated at the time by the Syrian military. Russian military investigators, however, quickly determined that blame lay with Israel. According to Russian experts, two of four Israeli jets that entered Syria to carry out attacks used the cover of the larger II-20M. An S-200 missile fired at the jets locked instead on the larger Russian plane. Israel, as it always does, blamed the Syrian military, but operators of highly advanced S-400 batteries protecting the Russian Kheimim Air Base in Syria had recorded everything.
According to reports, Putin was so angry with Netanyahu’s and Israel’s denials that he immediately upgraded Syria’s S-200 batteries to the S-300.
The U.S. exodus will reduce American military traffic in the region, allowing Russian and Syrian missile operators to concentrate on all Israeli military fighter aircraft exiting Israel en route to Syria.
Gideon Levy, a leading columnist with Ha’aretz, one of Israel’s prominent news outlets, was alarmed after the downing of the Russian plane. He warned Israel that its actions in Syria were “reckless” and would “come with a price.” His views were not given an airing by the U.S. mainstream media, more than likely because they were highly critical of Israel’s Syria interventions.
With the U.S. withdrawal, Netanyahu’s tendency to recklessness could well lead to a confrontation with Russia over the skies of the Middle East.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.