The war of words between Israel and Russia about the latter’s advanced weapons systems bound for Syria just got hotter after Israel’s defense minister, Bogie Yaalon, threatened his country would attack the new S-300 advanced missile batteries Syria has ordered from Russia. Though Israel claims they have not yet been shipped by Russia, it clearly fears that this may be imminent.
Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has meanwhile told Hezbollah’s Al Manar that he already received the first shipment of the S-300s. If this is true, the senior Israeli intelligence and military figures who’ve been saying otherwise (that Russia hasn’t yet shipped them) now have a black eye. Either they knew what they were saying was false, and lied. Or they didn’t know, which indicates their intelligence was faulty.
The other option is that Assad is lying, which is entirely possible. My own well-placed Israeli source says Israel isn’t aware of any Russian shipment of the missiles. They must be banking on Assad lying. Otherwise, Yaalon is going to look pretty foolish.
Since some media sources have indicated Yaalon threatened to attack the Russian weapons en route to Syria, it’s important to note he didn’t. He said that the missiles were unacceptable and that if delivered Israel “would know what to do.” That’s euphemism for we’ll take them out. Israel did just that last January, when it attacked a reputed shipment of SA-17 missiles apparently bound for Hezbollah’s hands in Lebanon. In that strike, Iran’s senior IRG general in Syria was killed. It’s unclear whether he was killed accidentally, and Israel really targeted the missiles alone; or whether both the shipment and the officer were targets.
At any rate, the difference in this case is that Yaalon is telling Russia that its red line has just moved forward. Before, Israel was only willing to attack Syria to prevent “game-changing” weapons from getting directly into Hezbollah hands inside Lebanon. Now, possibly because of the increasingly unstable situation inside Syria, Israel warns it will attack such weapons even if intended only for use in the former country.
If Yaalon’s threat is real (and so much of Israel’s defense posturing is bluff and bluster so it’s hard to know), then Israel is not just threatening to take on Russia much more directly than in the past, but it’s clearly taking a side in the civil war against Assad. Denying Assad the S-300s, means he will not be able to prevent the imposition of a no-fly zone over that country. This in turn would help neutralize the air power the loyalists bring to bear against the rebels in the form of helicopter gunships and war planes firing missiles on opposition positions and civilian strongholds.
If Assad gets his missiles, they will become yet another deterrent against further escalating western-Sunni military intervention. Which means the butcher from Damascus will be that much harder to dislodge and the bloodshed will go on even longer.