BY TOM O'CONNOR
The U.S. has expressed hope that Israel will defy a newly installed Russian missile defense system to continue bombing targets linked to Iran in Syria.
James Jeffrey, Washington's envoy to Syria, told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. was betting on Russia and Israel's strategic relationship to continue despite an international incident in September that resulted in the downing of a Russian military aircraft. The Il-20 surveillance plane was accidentally struck by allied Syrian anti-aircraft fire responding to an Israeli air raid against suspected weapons depot linked to Iran in western Syria, compelling Moscow to deliver modern S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to its Syrian partner in a rare public rift between the two.
"We are concerned very much about the S-300 system being deployed to Syria. The issue is at the detail level. Who will control it? what role will it play?" Jeffrey said, according to the Associated Press, echoing the concerns of other U.S. military and political officials.
"In the past, Russia has been permissive in consultations with the Israelis about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria," he added. "We certainly hope that that permissive approach will continue."
Complicating the issue, Israel and Russia stand on two different sides of Syria's seven-year civil war. While Israel joined the U.S. and its other regional allies—such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—in supporting a 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran came to the aid of their longtime Arab ally. Russia has attempted to balance its ties to archfoes Israel and Iran, but more than 200 Israeli attacks against suspected Iranian or pro-Iran positions in Syria have strained their ability to work together.
Russian-Israeli relations were openly strained when Moscow blamed Israel for Syria's accidental downing of the Il-20, claiming that the Israeli military did not give Russian forces a sufficient amount of warning prior to the surprise attack on what was said to be a warehouse containing weapons destined for Iran-backed militias in Latakia province. Though Israel has said it was justified in preventing alleged Iranian forward bases from being established in neighboring Syria, Russia sent the S-300 to reassure Syria's armed forces.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have vowed to continue strikes. Newspaper Haaretz reported last week Israeli forces had conducted such operations in Syria since the Il-20 downing, citing a diplomatic source. Though no such mission has been reported, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov told a media briefing Thursday that "it is advisable for 'hot heads' to adequately assess the current situation in the region and refrain from provocative actions in the territory of Syria" after discussing efforts to integrate its new air defense.
Undeterred, Israeli Environmental Protection Minister and Russia-Israel Intergovernmental Commission co-chair Zeev Elkin called the S-300 deployment "a big mistake," because "the Syrian military does not always know how to properly use the equipment transferred to them," as reported by the state-run Tass Russian News Agency. He warned of "practical actions" that would "undoubtedly be taken" against the S-300 sites should Israeli aircraft be targeted on Israeli territory.
"I really hope that there will be no Russian specialists [at the S-300 sites]," Elkin told Russian media during a meeting of the Russian-Israeli Intergovernmental Commission of which he is a part. He also added that "Israel has been doing everything in its power" to safeguard Russia's forces in Syria in spite of his view that "the Iranians repeatedly use the Russian military as a human shield."
While even Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed the view the all foreign forces—including those of Iran—should eventually leave Syria, Moscow has generally resisted both U.S. and Israeli calls for Tehran's complete expulsion from the war-torn country at this stage. Russian air power and Iran-backed militias such as the Lebanese Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement have helped allow the Syrian government to regain much of the country it lost to insurgents and militants earlier on in the conflict.
Russia held a four-way summit last week alongside the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Turkey on Syria to discuss the status of Idlib province, the last region to be held by an Islamist-led insurgency whose fate is bound by a ceasefire deal between Moscow and Ankara. Following this summit, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin and presidential envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev met Monday with Iranian Supreme National Security Council Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani and the Iranian foreign minister's senior assistant Hossein Jaberi Ansari, affirming their countries' joint stance.
"The results of the quadripartite summit (Russia-Turkey-France-Germany) in Istanbul on October 27, as well as the development of the situation in Syria, were reviewed," the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement. "The urgent need to continue the decisive struggle against terrorism and to ensure a political settlement in the SAR [Syrian Arab Republic], based on respect for its sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, was stressed."