Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran frequently carry out their “shadow war” in Syria. Since Damascus serves as a conduit for Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) weapons transfers throughout the region, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) target Iranian assets in the country.
IDF Actions in Syria and the Region
The Jewish state has launched various airstrikes and operations for over a decade to ward off Tehran’s growing foothold in the region and ability to arm its proxy groups in neighboring countries. For this reason, the Israeli Air Force’s recent mission over Syria earlier this week did not gain widespread media attention. Analysts predicted that Israel would respond accordingly as Tehran was ramping up its aggressive rhetoric and developing its weapons stockpiles. However, the IDF’s recent airstrike was unique as it struck nearby a Russian Navy installation on the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps this incident was meant to warn Moscow’s increasingly warm relations with Tehran.
Sunday’s Strike Targeted Controversial Locations
In Sunday’s airstrike mission, Israeli fighter jets carried out a series of barrages near Damascus and the coastal city of Tartus. Three soldiers were reportedly killed in the attacks. According to a Syrian-state-sponsored news outlet, several of the Israeli Air Force’s missiles were intercepted.
However, Syria often claims that its military shoots down Israel’s projectiles despite this being improbable. In 2017, a widely circulated story propagated by Syrian state-run news agencies asserted that a Russian-made S-200 missile somehow struck an Israeli F-35I Adir fifth-generation fighter conducting an operation over the country. This dubious claim was largely dismissed by industry and military experts.
According to The Times of Israel, “The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based watchdog, claimed the Israeli strike targeted a Syrian army air defense base in the area of Abu Afsa, south of Tartus. The opposition monitor, which relies on a network of informants inside Syria and has been criticized for having unclear funding sources, added that Iran-backed fighters are usually at the base.”
Russia Has a Foothold in Syrian Territory
Last year, Moscow expanded its Naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. As the second largest port in the country, Tartus functions as a key component of the Kremlin’s position in the Mediterranean. Additionally, the base’s location serves as the Russian Navy’s Mediterranean fueling spot. Russia has maintained a port in Tartus since the early 1970s, as a result of a Soviet-era agreement with Syria.
For years, Russia’s Tartus facility was leased from the Bashar al-Assad government. However, these terms changed following Moscow’s role in preserving the Assad regime’s power amidst Syria’s civil war in the mid-2010s.
As detailed by Voice of America, “The deal allows Russia use of the naval facility free of charge for 49 years and gives the Kremlin sovereign jurisdiction over the base. The agreement also allows Russia to keep a dozen warships — including nuclear-powered vessels — at Tartus, the only navy facility the Kremlin possesses outside the former Soviet Union.”
Did Israel Strike Close to Russia’s Interests?
Tartus’ status as the Russian Navy’s foothold in the country makes the positioning of Israel’s airstrikes on Sunday interesting. Analyst Arie Egozi in a Breaking Defense opinion piece noted that this incident is the “closest a strike has come to a Russian base.” While the airstrike’s proximity to Russia’s base could have been purely coincidental, the Kremlin’s strengthening relations with the Iranian regime could have played a role.
Earlier this month, a U.S. State Department spokesperson revealed that Iran had begun training its Russian counterparts in drone use. In June, a Russian delegation was captured by satellite imagery visiting Iran’s Kashan airfield in the presence of Iranian-produced Shahed armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It is widely assumed that Moscow will use Iran’s armed drones to support its war efforts in Ukraine. Some analysts suspect Tehran could procure some of Russia’s Su-35 fighter jet airframes in exchange. Additionally, the two rogue states have also partnered up in the recent joint-space launch. Equipped with a camera, the spacecraft could allow Iran to spy on its neighbors and more accurately direct its region-wide proxies in attacks.
Both instances of Russian-Iranian collaboration could be perceived as threats by the Jewish state. It is possible that Israel’s Air Force used the positioning of its recent Syria airstrikes to dissuade future cooperation between the Kremlin and the regime.
According to Dr. David Wurmser, Director of the Project on Global anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel relationship at the Center for Security Policy, in an interview with 19FortyFive:
“Increasing tensions between Israel and Russia in Syria appear consistent with the overall trend of their relations. Russia depends ever more on Iran for evading Western sanctions, reinforces its east Mediterranean presence to obstruct Ukraine’s maritime access to the world, and increasingly views Israeli natural gas assets as strategically competitive. Most importantly, Russia understands that Israel is a powerful Western asset both in the Middle East and the region and a symbol of American power and that Israel is thus inherently an adversary as Western-Russian tensions rise. Since Israel’s leverage over Russia is not only the direct, but very complicated, threat it poses to Russia, but equally the threat it credibly poses to the survival of President Assad’s regime. As such, it is to be expected that Israeli strikes will increasingly target Syrian forces, and threaten even Russian forces, in addition to escalated attacks on Iranian assets.”
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.