While Israel has been clear about its determination to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, as well as the trafficking of precision guided missiles (PGMs) to Lebanon through Syria, the Islamic Republic has shown equal determination pursuing its dangerous objectives in the war-torn country.
That puts Russia, which (like Iran) has a deep vested interest in preserving the Assad regime, in an awkward spot. While Moscow understands Israel's need to keep the Iranian-Shi'ite radical axis at bay, it is also unhappy about Israel's reported air strikes in Syria.
One of those strikes reportedly took place on July 22, targeting a site in the town of Al-Qusayr, in western Syria, near the Lebanese border. That incident came just three days after another reported attack against targets in Al-Safira, northern Syria – an area that has been closely linked to the Iranian-Hizballah PGM production program.
The smuggling or assembly of advanced weapons in Syria by Iran is an openly stated Israeli red line; Israeli defense officials have repeatedly stated that they will target such activity.
Recently, a series of media signals, apparently sent by Moscow, seem designed to tell Israel that Russia is concerned about this ongoing shadow war. Examples include a reported Russian claim that one of its air defense systems in Syria intercepted Israeli missiles from a July 19 Israeli strike in Al-Safira. The report includes claims that Russian air defense systems intercepted seven out of eight missiles fired by Israeli fighter jets.
This is joined by another recent media report claiming that Russia has "run out of patience" with Israel's activities in Syria, and is planning to change its position regarding Israeli air activities over the country. That report also claimed that Russia had begun supplying Syrian forces with more advanced systems that are capable of shooting down incoming missiles.
Israeli defense sources, meanwhile, have said that there are no changes in Russia's policy on the ground towards Israel, irrespective of the latest reports. A deconfliction hotline, used by the Israeli and Russian militaries to prevent unintended operational accidents in Syria, remains active and has even improved in its efficiency, sources told Israel's Maariv Hebrew-language daily.
While Israel has made it abundantly clear that the last thing it is interested in is accidentally harming Russian assets in Syria, this no longer seems sufficient in easing Russian signaling against the strikes.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the research division in the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) that it is difficult to know the true situation on the ground.
"The use of Russian systems against [Israeli] missiles has been going on in Syria," Kuperwasser, who is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, stated. "What is different today is that the Russians said they have taken on this job themselves."
This messaging, in turn, has both military and political implications. Militarily, the reports could signal great frustration by the Russian military leadership, said Kuperwasser, as well as by the Syrians, who have not been able to use Russian-made air defense systems effectively to stop Israeli strikes.
With Israel striking repeatedly – and the Assad regime's bases, used by Iran and Hezbollah, taking hits – the situation continues to frustrate the Syrian, Iranian, and Russian camps, he added. The July 19 strike reportedly killed five Assad regime fighters.
Most critically for the region's military future, the strikes are destroying advanced weapons that Iran keeps trying to manufacture, smuggle, and assemble, Kuperwasser said.
"This frustrates the Syrians, who begin to ask Russia about the defense systems they received, and why they haven't worked. Russia is unhappy about such criticism," he added, "and it claims that missile systems, such Russian-made Buk-M2 surface-to-air missile, works better when they use it. Either the Syrians are less able to activate the system, or the system isn't effective here – this is an operational question that we do not know the answer to."
On a wider strategic level, Kuperwasser noted that Iran is keen to arm Hizballah with PGMs in order to deter Israel from striking Tehran's nuclear program. "Russia could be worried that Israel's relatively successful strikes against the trafficking of weapons systems to Lebanon could make Israel over-confident. If there is a reduced PGM threat on Israel, and Hizballah would rely on mostly inaccurate projectiles, this could boost Israeli and American willingness to act against Iran," he said.
"All of this is happening during a key international junction for the U.S.-led anti-Iranian coalition and the Iranian axis. As time goes by, there is no supervision on the Iranian nuclear program. The Iranians are enriching uranium to 20 percent and to 60 percent, accumulating it all of the time. They are approaching the point where they will have enough fissile material for a first nuclear bomb," Kuperwasser warned.
"This is why Israeli officials are saying we can no longer wait, that time is running out. There will be a need to act, possibly for the U.S., and definitely for Israel. Russia could be hoping that Israel is deterred from doing this," he argued.
Israel, for its part, must continue to strike precision weaponry in Syria, said Kuperwasser. The last known strikes in Syria were apparently successful enough to provoke significant Iranian rage, which translated into the deadly attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker, resulting in the killing of Romanian and British nationals on board.
A subsequent report released by United States Central Command found that Iranian suicide drones hit the vessel, and that Iran is increasingly using the same weapons against targets in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq.
"What is most important is to not give up, not to stop these attacks, and to prepare for the next stage, because in terms of the Iranian nuclear program, we are in the money time," said Kuperwasser.
In a Hebrew-language op-ed published Aug. 5 on the Mako news website, Kuperwasser added that Iran assumes that responses to its campaign of controlled escalation will be limited, since "Iran's rivals have no interest in escalation; they fear and are deterred by it."
Kuperwasser also noted that the Biden administration has not said that all options are on the table when it comes to Iran's nuclear program. While Washington has said it will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons, it did not say that it will act to prevent Iran from obtaining the capability to produce nuclear weapons,.
This is seen in Iran as "expressions of American weakness," and as "limits to Israeli activity," Kuperwasser stated.
IPT Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
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