Shifting Alliances

Did Moscow Green-Light an Israeli Attack in Syria?

The Kremlin may be backing Bashar al-Assad and publicly denouncing Israel’s strike on Damascus’ airport Thursday, but the two sides are ‘tightly’ coordinating behind the scenes.

SAMEER AL-DOUMY/Getty

An Israeli attack in Damascus on Thursday was evidently well coordinated with Russia, highlighting how transient alliances in the Middle East’s most consequential war can be.

Israel, in addition to Sunni Muslim countries opposed to the Syrian regime, is America’s close regional ally, while Russia backs some of Israel’s most formidable foes: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah.

Loud explosions were reported near Damascus’ international airport Thursday morning, reportedly injuring three people.

Syrian officials were quick to blame Israel for the attack, and in an apparent attempt to retaliate, an “object”—reportedly a drone—was sent over the Golan Heights that was destroyed by an Israeli Defense Force Patriot missile, according to an IDF spokesman.

Although Jerusalem officials normally refrain from confirming such attacks like the one in Damascus, this time they did not quite deny it.

“The incident in Syria is consistent with our policy of preventing the smuggling of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran,” Intelligence Minister Israel Katz told Israel’s Army Radio. He declined, in accordance with the long-held policy, to explicitly confirm that the IDF conducted the attack.

Three weeks ago, in a rare departure from that Jerusalem’s policy of ambiguity, Israeli officials did acknowledge they fired missiles at Syrian targets. In Moscow, Kremlin officials publicly denounced that Israeli attack, leading some in Jerusalem to speculate that the tacit understanding between Jerusalem and Moscow could be at an end and that the Kremlin would no longer wink and nod at Israel’s routine incursions into Syria’s airspace, largely dominated by Russian and Syrian government air forces.

On Thursday Russian spokesmen denounced the attack as well, though they were careful not to confirm Israel was behind it. And when asked Thursday whether Israel had notified Moscow in advance of the strike, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Kremlin reporters that “Russia and Israel exchange information using various channels.”

One likely such channel, according to Jerusalem sources, is Avigdor Liberman, the Russian-speaking, Moldovan-born Israeli defense minister who landed in Moscow on Wednesday for a pre-planned visit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also speaks to Putin on the phone regularly and often visits Moscow.

“The Russians know that our most important ally is the United States, and we know, of course, that Russia’s clients are Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah,” said an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Yet, he added, “that doesn’t stop us from tightly coordinating with Moscow through well-established work mechanisms.”

The IDF and Russia want to ensure there are no collisions in the skies above Syria, the official added, saying, “And yes, the Russians are very familiar with our red lines.”

Those red lines include “preventing Iran from establishing a military foothold in Syria,” Katz, the intelligence minister, told The Daily Beast last week. Additionally, he said, Jerusalem has made clear it will not allow Iran to transfer heavy armaments through Syria to Hezbollah, which he characterized as “our most formidable non-state enemy.”

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Speaking to the UN Security Council last week, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Washington and its partners will resume their pressure on Tehran, documenting violations of several council resolutions that ban arms transfers from Iran to Hezbollah, as well as to its Yemen-based ally, the Houthis.

Hours after Thursday’s Israeli attack in Damascus, Russian diplomats exchanged barbs with their British and French counterparts at the United Nations, while Haley sharpened her criticism of the Kremlin’s Syria policy.

During a Security Council session on humanitarian aid to Syria, Haley blamed Russia for shielding Assad, even as the Syrian dictator prevents UN aid from reaching its destination and bombs hospitals. “Many of you said we need to put pressure on the Syrian regime,” she said. “That’s actually not the case. We need to put pressure on Russia, because Russia continues to cover for the Syrian regime”—does so even when Assad “uses chemical weapons on his own people.”

The French UN ambassador, François Delattre, told reporters Thursday that Paris has conclusively determined that in a well-publicized April 4 attack at Khan Sheikhun, in Syria’s Idlib province, “sarin was used, and the presence of a substance called hexamine is characteristic of the sarin produced by the Syrian regime.” So, he added, “we have no doubt that the Syrian regime is responsible for this barbaric attack.”

The United States fired 59 Tomahawk missiles in response to that chemical assault, hitting a Syrian airbase that according to Pentagon officials was used to launch the Idlib attack.

On Wednesday, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that if Washington asked London to join in future military attacks against Syria, “It would be difficult for us to say no.”

But Washington has yet to clarify its ultimate goal in Syria—and particularly its policy on Assad’s future, despite the atrocities he has committed. President Trump, who hosted the 15 members of the Security Council at the White House last week, said that while the Syrian dictator is clearly a “bad actor,” his removal “is not a deal breaker” for the U.S., according to an ambassador who attended the session. However, the ambassador, who requested anonymity, said that at a later session National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told the visiting diplomats, “There can be no stable Syria as long as Assad stays in power.”