The events that led to the tragic downing of a Russian plane in recent days over the eastern Mediterranean underline just how dangerous Iran’s activities are to regional and international security.
In the hours that followed the destruction of Russia’s intelligence-gathering aircraft by Syrian regime’s anti-aircraft fire, a steady stream of accusatory and severe statements against Israel began coming out of Moscow, indicating the obvious: A major crisis was brewing.
Following a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Moscow took a more conciliatory tone, but lower-ranking Russian officials continued issuing angry statements.
In its initial efforts to diffuse the crisis, the Israel Defense Forces began providing details about its airstrike—the strike that triggered reckless Syrian missile fire, launched without any Syrian discernment between friend and foe.
The IDF’s statement about what happened contained a revealing piece of intelligence. It stated that Israel’s “fighter jets targeted a facility of the Syrian Armed Forces, from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
The key word here is “manufacture,” signifying that Iran has resumed an effort to build missile factories inside Lebanon.
A violation of Israel’s ‘red line’
Traditionally, Iran’s program was to traffic sophisticated weapons to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. But this has run into major trouble in the form of an Israeli counter-program to disrupt this arms flow.
So Iran is trying new tricks, including giving Hezbollah the ability to domestically produce its own guided, heavy rockets.
That would give Hezbollah the ability to threaten Israel with massive projectiles, like the Iranian-designed Fateh 110 rocket, which can carry a half-ton warhead, and to do so with firepower that is accurate. The difference between accurate and inaccurate firepower is major. If Hezbollah can precisely hit the most sensitive Israeli targets—be they civilian or military—its ability to strategically threaten Israel grows significantly.
This enhancement to Hezbollah’s arsenal is a major violation of an Israeli “red line,” which is in place to stop such threats from spinning out of control. And Israel decided to enforce it.
Iran seems to have also assumed that by storing the weapons in Latakia, on the Syrian coastline, in the heart of the Assad regime’s Alawite heartland, and in the general vicinity of Russia’s airbase and naval base in Syria, Israel would be deterred from disrupting the transfer.
Iran’s assumption was proven wrong. Israel’s extensive intelligence and precise airpower abilities once again came together, to thwart the threat, before Hezbollah could point the rockets at critical targets deep inside Israel.
Yet unlike the many past strikes that have occurred, this time around, an explosive and dangerous complication occurred. Due to the negligent and unprofessional firing of Syrian air-defense crews, who opened fire at a time when Israel’s jets were already back in Israeli air space, Russia sustained a painful loss of 15 air crew members.
Since Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war in 2015 to rescue the Assad regime, the defense establishments of both countries have maintained a successful deconfliction channel. Israel’s extensive air activity did not interfere with Russia’s own military operations, and the countries were able to stay out of one another’s way.
Netanyahu has developed a good communications channel with the Russian leader, and the militaries followed suit, guided by the mutual interest of avoiding dangerous mishaps.
Now, however, Iran’s brinkmanship is putting this relationship to the test.
Upcoming Israeli briefing in Moscow
It should, however, be putting Moscow’s relationship with Tehran to the test. Israel is engaging in an active defense campaign that it has no choice in waging. Iran, on the other hand, can choose to scale back its destabilizing weapons trafficking, as well as its attempts to create its own war machine inside Syria. Yet Iran is continuing onwards, jeopardizing the Assad regime—and Russia’s interests.
As long as Iran refuses to roll back its efforts, it will guarantee that Israeli strikes. The responsibility, therefore, rests with Iran and its aggressive military takeover program, not with Israel.
This is a message that Israeli Air Force Chief, Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin, will take with him to Moscow, as he and his delegation visit the Russian capital to share details of their investigation into the incident.
The Israeli delegation will provide a full briefing to their Russian counterparts regarding what occurred and share the results of the IDF inquiry into the chain of events.
According to the IDF Spokesman Unit, they will also “present the continuous Iranian attempts to transfer strategic weapons to the Hezbollah terror organization and to establish an Iranian military presence in Syria.”
“We were very clear about our ‘red lines’. We will not allow the Iranians and the Syrians to make Hezbollah stronger by game-changing weaponry. And later, we added another red line, to not allow Iran to build independent war machine in Syria,” Israel’s former National Security Advisor, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, told a conference call, which was organized on Thursday by the Israel Project. In all such attacks, he pointed out, Israel went to big efforts to avoid harming any Russian personnel.
Asked to interpret Russia’s move to seal off a section of airspace in the eastern Mediterranean, off the Syrian coastline, Amidror said it was too soon to draw conclusions.
“They are freezing the situation. They are learning it. They don’t want another tragedy. Their reaction is a very natural one. Something very bad happened … they are freezing the situation in the air to prevent any more such mistakes. But for the long run, I think they didn’t decide [what to do]. They have to learn and make the conclusion.”
One must hope that this reading of Russia’s step is accurate, and that Israel’s de-escalation steps will prove effective in helping Russia to conclude that Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime are responsible for this tragedy. This Iranian axis is taking big risks and could end up igniting a major regional fire in the process.
Whatever happens next, Israel has signaled that as far as it’s concerned, nothing changes regarding its “war between wars” to keep Iran out of the region.
“For us, it’s a very high priority mission,” said Amidror. “We will have to do it one way or another. It will not be easy if there are some limitations from the Russian point of view. But the importance of the target will not be changed.”
Israel sees no alternative but to enforce its “red lines,” as failing to do this would see Iran complete its military takeover of the region and encircle Israel with arsenals of guided projectiles. This is not a scenario Israel has the luxury of sitting back and watching unfold.