JERUSALEM—As Russian warplanes struck for the first time in Syria Wednesday and asked other foreign air forces to get out of the way, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel will defend its interests in Syria without seeking permission from Russia.
"We have our interests and when they are threatened we will act and will continue to act," he said. "This was made clear to the Russian president."
The Russians notified both the United States and Israel about an hour before they struck rebel targets near the Syrian city of Homs. The Russians asked the Americans and Israelis to clear Syrian air space before the attack.
American officials said the U.S.-led coalition will continue to conduct strikes and will not leave Syrian air space.
Ehud Yaari, an analyst for Israel’s Channel Two, said that the Russians had made their request to the United States by a low-level official in their embassy in Baghdad in a phone call to the American embassy there, a form of communication that angered the Americans, according to Yaari.
Although the Russians claimed to have attacked Islamic State targets, Yaari and other analysts say the attacks were not against IS but against several small rebel groups, some of them supported by the West. The object of these attacks, said Yaari, was to keep open a main highway leading from Damascus to the north.
At least 27 Syrian civilians, including a number of children, were reported to have been killed in the air attacks.
Yaalon spelled out Israel's red lines in Syria, which, if crossed, will provoke an Israeli reaction. "We will hit anyone who tries to violate our sovereignty, anyone who tries to transfer advanced weapon systems to terrorist organizations (a reference to Hezbollah), and anyone who tries to transfer chemical weapons to terror organizations. We have no intention of giving up our ability to defend our interests."
The minister's comments came two days after Putin said he was "concerned" about Israeli attacks in Syria.
Yaalon said that Israel was not intervening in the Syrian civil war and was not directly attacking the regime of President Basher al-Assad, whose interests the Russians are seeking to protect. Russian officials said the military intervention in Syria is temporary and will not involve the use of ground troops.
It remains to be seen whether the Russians will try to curb the Israeli air force’s freedom of movement over Syria, although Israeli planes will avoid flying over the base Russia has built for itself near Latakia.
The prospect of Russian and Israeli warplanes clashing is intimidating but they have in fact done so once before, and it was the Israelis who came out ahead. The incident occurred during the so-called War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt along the Suez Canal in 1970. The Egyptians had called on Moscow to protect it from deep strikes being carried out by the Israeli Air Force in an effort to halt the Egyptian shelling of Israeli ground forces along the Suez Canal. The Soviets posted several squadrons of MIGs at Egyptian air bases.
The Israeli government at first ordered its air force to keep well away from the Russians, in order not to get entangled with a superpower. As the Russian planes became increasingly aggressive, however, permission was given for a one-time faceoff, according to Israeli accounts. The Israelis chose a force composed of its best pilots, almost all of whom were veterans of innumerable clashes with Arab air forces. Between them, the pilots in the group had 67 confirmed aerial kills. On July 30, in a carefully choreographed ambush, the planes were dispersed in small groups over the Sinai Peninsula and Gulf of Suez, out of sight from the patch of sky where the ambush was to be sprung and at different altitudes.
The action began with an attack on an Egyptian radar station to draw the Russians out. The Israelis could monitor more than a score of Soviet planes lifting off from their bases, identifying them as Russian by the language the pilots were speaking. At a signal, the Israeli Phantoms and Mirages began to converge on the target area. As the two forces sighted each other, dogfights began. The Israelis quickly detected that the Soviet pilots were inexperienced. Within three minutes, five of the Russian planes were shot down. Only one of the pilots succeeded in parachuting to safety. One Israeli plane was damaged but made it safely back to base.
Not wishing to twist the bear’s tail, Israel announced that it had shot down Egyptian aircraft. Within a few days, however, the true story emerged. Egypt declared that it had lost no planes to the Israelis and Egyptian pilots, often berated by their Russian instructors, took pleasure at the Russians’ embarrassment. The Soviets, however, would find a more effective means of curbing the Israeli air force—the formidable SAM (surface-to-air missiles) which in the Yom Kippur War, three years after the ambush, would down scores of Israeli planes on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts.
Israeli pilots today are presumably not looking for a replay, and it has been many years since Israel planes engaged enemy planes in aerial combat. It can be presumed too that the Russian pilots in Syria today, if the 1970 incident is known to them, will not be out to settle scores.