Israel Strikes Hezbollah in Syria: Key Takeaways and Comparisons
Andrei AKULOV | 23.12.2015 | OPINION

Israel Strikes Hezbollah in Syria: Key Takeaways and Comparisons

On Dec.19, Israeli forces launched a missile strike that killed Samir Kuntar, a senior Hezbollah leader, and several others in Syria. Over the course of the Syrian conflict, Israeli warplanes have hit targets inside the war-torn country several times, with most of those strikes said to be against weapons deliveries meant for Hezbollah.

According to the United Nations peacekeeping force along the Lebanese-Israeli border, there was an exchange of fire the next day after the attack that appeared to have concluded without casualties or escalation — suggesting that both sides had carried out essentially symbolic strikes in their customary effort to avoid another war.

Israel has formally kept out of Syria's civil war which started almost five years ago but has bombed Hezbollah targets there without publicly acknowledging these sorties. 

This is not the first attack after the Russian military operation in Syria kicked off. On October 30th Israel attacked several Hezbollah and Syrian positions in the Qalamoun region of Western Syria close to the Lebanon border. This attack was followed up with a fresh wave of attacks on November 11th on Syrian Army facilities in the area of the Damascus airport.

Operating in the theatre with so many actors involved and different interests pursued by the actors, Russia and Israel set a good example of avoiding conflicts and incidents. This is an example to be followed by others. 

During the September 21 visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Moscow, Russia and Israel focused on coordinating Israeli and Russian operations in Syria.

Several days after that meeting, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon referred to understandings reached in the meeting between Netanyahu and Putin, saying he did not expect the Russian campaign in Syria to interfere with Israel’s «freedom to act» in Syrian airspace.

In mid-October Russia's defence ministry said that its forces in Syria had set up a «hotline» with Israel's military to avoid clashes in the sky over the war-torn country.

«Mutual information-sharing on the actions of aircraft has been established through a hotline between the Russian aviation command centre at the Hmeimim air base and a command post of the Israeli air force», Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said

Israeli and Russian air forces are coordinating to «avoid misunderstandings» in Syrian arena, an Israeli official said in late November making a comment on holding military exercises in a neighboring area. 

The military official said a coordination mechanism had been set up between the Israeli and the Russian air forces to «avoid any misunderstandings» between the two. «We avoid [flying in] proximity to each other, so as not to create situations where the pilots have any doubts. We have no intention of downing any Russian aircraft. Russia is not the enemy. We are trying to avoid friction with the Russian jets, and they do the same with us», he explained.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised bilateral efforts to prevent unintended clashes of their air forces operating in Syria and pledged to broaden so-called deconfliction measures to include forces operating from the ground as well. «The mechanism ... [that] presupposes contacts between the militaries to prevent incidents due to the dramatic developments in the region has been efficient», President Putin told Netanyahu during the Paris climate summit in late November. 

Referencing Ankara’s downing of the Russian fighter, Netanyahu said to Putin: «The events of recent days prove the importance of our coordination, our deconfliction mechanisms, our attempts to cooperate with each other to prevent unnecessary accidents and tragedies, and I believe that we’ve been successful. It’s important. Netanyahu said he was «very satisfied by the fact that our militaries have been very careful to coordinate with one another and will continue to do so».

In a Nov. 29 interview with Israel Radio, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon revealed that the Israeli Air Force used the coordination mechanism to warn away a Russian fighter aircraft that had briefly violated Israeli airspace during operations against Syrian rebels just north of the Israeli border.

Ya’alon did not specify when the breach occurred and described the incident as «a small infraction», with the Russian fighter penetrating Israeli airspace for about one mile before correcting course. He credited the direct Israeli-Russian channel of communications for preventing unintended clashes between the two countries, which are pursuing very different policies in Syria. «Russian aircraft do not intend to attack us and therefore there’s no need to automatically down them. Until today, there’s been one small incident, and it was immediately corrected through our communications channel», Ya’alon said. «I want to remind you that about a year ago, we shot down a Syrian Su-24 that crossed our border into our territory as well as unmanned aerial vehicles», Ya’alon told veteran Israel Radio broadcaster Arieh Golan. «But when we understood that the Russians planned to operate in Syria, immediately the prime minister met with President Putin and also military officers [from Israel and Russia] met… and we created an open channel for coordination in order to prevent misunderstandings».

The Israeli defense establishment has conveyed messages to Russian officials in an effort to establish coordination of ground based operations in Syria, and to bolster the aerial, naval and electromagnetic cooperation already underway, Israeli news website Walla reported on Dec.1.

According to Geoffrey Aronson, the director for Foundation for Middle East Peace, Israel, on the whole, views Russia’s operation in Syria move as a positive step. It sees it as an opportunity to cement its interests in the post-war Syria.

The Syrian civil war continues to fester and has now drawn in nearly every major world power, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Turkey, who all have different and sometimes opposing interests.

Despite the divergent goals of Russia and Israel in Syria, the Jewish state — unlike other Western countries — has coordinated with Russia on its military campaign in Syria in order to avoid any inadvertent clashes.

With all the incidents, unintended violations and even different views on the situation in Syria Russian and Israel maintain good relationship. Left unsaid is the obvious comparison with Turkey's aggressive response to Russian alleged infractions. 

A Turkish F-16 jet shot down a Russian warplane on November 24. Whatever was the reason, one does not have to be a military expert to realize that a single plane cannot pose a threat to any country. There were many ways to react, except one - using a weapon against a target. Israel never used weapons against Russian planes and Russia never resorted to force when Israeli Air Force aircraft appeared in or in the vicinity of Russia-controlled Syrian air space. That’s how civilized countries tackle the problems. They talk and agree on certain procedures to avoid incidents. The comparison is obviously not in the Turkey’s favor.

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