Israel signals it is ready to go it alone in Syria as US prepares to withdraw

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Israeli Air Force pilots' graduation ceremony at Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, on Dec 26, 2018.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Israeli Air Force pilots' graduation ceremony at Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, on Dec 26, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

TEL AVIV - An appointment with the Israeli army is always a welcome opportunity for politicians to pose for cameras. Given April's early elections, it was therefore hardly surprising Mr Benjamin Netanyahu used the closing ceremony of the 177th Fighter Pilot Course to remind his constituents that as Israel's Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, he is also his country's Supreme Commander.

"I accompany our fighter pilots," Mr Netanyahu said in front of the cameras on Wednesday (Dec 26). "Usually in the middle of the night, when I'm waiting for the red phone to ring and my military secretary tells me that once again a mission, as complex as it may be, has been successfully completed, and that our forces have all come home safe and sound."

This time, however, his address was more than just the overture of an election campaign. It was a speech of strategic importance coming in the wake of the shock United States decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

Mr Netanyahu indirectly commented on an air raid the comrades had flown only a few hours earlier, bombing Iranian positions in Syria, and sending stern signals to Moscow, Washington, and Teheran.

Russia said on Wednesday that a formation of six Israeli F-16 fighter bombers attacked targets near Damascus from Lebanese airspace, injuring at least three Syrian soldiers. Anonymous Israeli sources confirmed the attacks later to the news agency AP.

Several circumstances made this attack special: It is the first strike to occur after US President Donald Trump's pledge to withdraw all US troops.

The small American contingent of 2,000 servicemen had great strategic importance for Israel. It was seen as a bargaining chip against Russia.

Its presence was a reminder of the superpower's unwavering support for Israel, and prevented Moscow from achieving its main aim without concessions - achieving total control of all of post-war Syria. In this way, it was supposed to help persuade Moscow to do more to keep Iran off Israel's borders.

That is why Israel's latest attack was also intended to serve as a signal to the Kremlin.

In his speech to the cadets, the Prime Minister said: "We will not abide an Iranian entrenchment in Syria. We are taking action against it aggressively and powerfully, including in these very days."


He added that Mr Trump's decision did not change Israel's policy: "We stand by our red lines in Syria and anywhere else."

In addition, Israeli officers anonymously told news agencies that Russia was not living up to its commitments to Israel and the US to keep Iranian soldiers and Hezbollah militias at least 80km from Israel's border. Revolutionary Guards were indeed very active on the Golan Heights.

Taken together with Mr Netanyahu's resolute speech, the fact that this information is leaked to the media indicates that the Prime Minister is resolved to face down Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, Israel is making an effort to avoid a direct confrontation. Its air force has reduced the number of attacks, albeit increasing their severity. Israeli fighters did not enter Syrian airspace on Wednesday, but dropped their payloads over Lebanon, letting them glide to their targets beyond the border.

All this allows the Russians not to interfere for the time being. While the Kremlin strongly condemned Israel's attacks as a "provocative act" that "endangered two civilian airplanes", its military still decided not to employ its anti-aircraft missiles, allegedly not to endanger civil aviation.

However, these adjustments will not solve Mr Netanyahu's dilemmas.

After all, Iran also operates in Eastern Syria, far away from Lebanon and out of range from bombs released there. It supposedly also establishes military infrastructure close to the Russian bases in Western Syria. In addition, Teheran is building up a missile threat on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

If Israel wants to attack these facilities, it will have no choice but to get close to the Russians and violate Syria's airspace.

Maybe that's already the case.

Mr Netanyahu seemed to be hinting at such a scenario during the graduation ceremony.

"In the history of the Middle East, there has never been aerial activity such as this. Aircraft ascend and descend, take off and land, and reach arenas both near and far, very far."