Two weeks ago, it is believed that it was Israeli fighter jets flying over Lebanon that fired on and destroyed some Syrian military warehouses outside Damascus. The facility was said to contain powerful, Iranian-made missiles capable of hitting targets in Israel as far south as Beersheva.
While Israel never officially confirmed that it was the party doing the firing, it is clear that the Israelis have the most to lose should such long range missiles be put into action.
Israel has acknowledged that it is particularly concerned that those and other potent weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese organization that fought a month-long war with Israel in the summer of 2006, and that now is fighting to help keep the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. And so, it is believed, Israel acted to take out the missiles before they could be shipped across the mountains into Lebanon.
The ease with which the Israelis apparently carried out the attack also served as a guide to any other party that might seek to intervene in the civil war in Syria. They showed that there’s little to prevent a country such as the United States from parking an aircraft carrier off the coast in the Mediterranean or Red Sea and establishing a no-fly zone in some or all of Syria. Warships based well outside the range of Syrian weapons could fire missiles with impunity at Assad regime facilities.
Now, it appears, there is something to prevent that happening.
Reports indicate that boatloads of high-end Russian missiles currently are bound for Syria. These missiles – the S-300 air defence system that has the capacity to intercept jet fighters and cruise missiles – are part of a contract signed with Syria in 2010 that have never been fulfilled – until now. While Russia was persuaded not to ship the rockets one and two years ago, not even a hastily arranged visit to Russia this week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could persuade Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to cancel the shipment this time.
Frustrated Israeli officials this week said that the S-300 deployment will shatter Israel’s qualitative military edge and constrain the freedom of the skies Israel has enjoyed over Syria and Lebanon.
That may be but, with this move, Russia has enhanced its leverage as the leading voice on the Syrian regime’s side arguing for a political resolution of the 26-month-long civil war that has killed about 80,000 people.
While the United States and Turkey agreed this week in Washington that Mr. al-Assad has to go, and that the Syrian opposition should be helped, Russia, a partner in an upcoming peace conference on Syria, has insisted that any transitional authority in Syria must include elements of the Assad administration.
With these missiles now on route to Damascus, Russia has signalled that no outside party will be allowed to intervene in the civil war in Syria, or fire on Damascus at will, and that any international resolution to the conflict must include the Assad regime Moscow is protecting.
As for Mr. Netanyahu’s urgent meeting with Mr. Putin, it is clear the Israeli leader could not turn back the missile. The most he could hope to achieve was a pledge from the Russian that these and other powerful and potent weapons would not find their way into the hands of Hezbollah.
Since Russia’s interest in the region is more connected to the Assad regime in Syria than it is to Hezbollah and its patron Iran, Mr. Putin might comfortably have given the Israeli such an assurance.