JERUSALEM – The mechanism worked out last week in Moscow between Israeli and Russian heads of state for avoiding clashes with each other in Syria underwent its first strain today when President Vladimir Putin said he was "worried" about an Israeli artillery strike at Syrian army positions opposite the Golan Heights over the weekend.
Putin attempted to balance his statement at a press conference in New York by saying that "Russia must respect Israeli interests." Nevertheless, his expression of concern at the Israeli strike appeared to hint that Moscow will be closely monitoring Israeli activities in Syria and will, at the least, speak out when it deems that the interests of its Syrian ally, President Bashar Assad, are challenged.
Israel retaliated Saturday night for two mortar shells fired into the Golan from territory controlled by the Syrian army opposite the Golan Heights. Israeli army officers said the shells, which apparently caused no casualties or damage, were likely errant rounds fired during an exchange between the Syrian army and rebel forces close to the Golan border. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the shelling "crossed a red line." "We see the Syrian regime and its military as responsible for what occurs on their territory," he said. The Israeli counter-fire hit two artillery positions.
Such tit-for-tats have become fairly routine during the four-year-long Syrian civil war which, from time to time, rubs up against the Golan border. The Syrian territory opposite the Golan is in easy view from the Israeli-held heights and the retaliatory fire is generally precise. The absence of reports of Syrian casualties suggests that the Israeli fire was intended to serve as a warning, not to draw blood.
The area in question, around the former regional capital of Kuneitra, is only a mile from the Golan border. A year ago, the al-Qaida affiliated Nusra Front drove Syrian forces from the Kuneitra’s environs but Assad’s army has recently renewed its campaign in the area.
Putin’s expression of concern over the Israeli shelling is of considerable interest in Jerusalem since Israel’s involvement in Syria goes far beyond minor retaliation for errant shells. Israel has several times in recent years launched devastating air strikes on convoys said to be bearing advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon and on warehouses storing rockets similarly destined. The Israeli air force also conducts numerous reconnaissance flights in the area. However, it has not hit targets of the Assad regime in an attempt to weaken it, which is Putin’s major concern.
The establishment in recent weeks of a Russian military enclave on the northern Syrian coast, including warplanes and anti-aircraft missile batteries poses a serious, if meanwhile hypothetical, threat to Israeli planes in the area. The Russians, it is presumed, have no interest in opening a front against Israel but there is always the danger of unexpected moves triggering an unintended confrontation.
Meanwhile, Syria is handing over to Hezbollah 75 tanks for use in battling al Qaeda-affiliated militants, according to a Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Rai. The tanks are Soviet era T-55s and T-72s, apparently left over from the Yom Kippur War in which Syria and Egypt, armed with Soviet weaponry, fought Israel. The newspaper said the tanks were a gift from Damascus to the Lebanese militia which has fought alongside the regime’s army in the civil war. Hezbollah recently declared an end to offensive combat in Syria, which has cost it heavy casualties. Theoretically the tanks could be used against Israel, though it is assumed that Israel’s advanced anti-tank arsenal could cope with any such threat.