Israeli Defense Minister Says Russia, U.S. Recognize Israel’s ‘Freedom to Act and to Defend’ Interests in Syria

Smoke rises after Russian airstrikes in Syria
Smoke rises after Russian airstrikes in Syria / AP
February 23, 2016

JERUSALEM—Less than a week after Israel was reported to have rocketed Syrian army outposts in the Damascus area despite the Russian presence as defender of the Syrian regime, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Monday that both Russia and the United States recognize Israel’s "freedom to act and to defend our interests" in Syria.

Yaalon did not confirm or deny the rocketing, reported by the generally reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in England. But his assertion of Israel’s freedom of action, at least up to a limit, underlines another level of complexity in the international free-for-all in Syria.

Immediately after the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria last September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior military officers flew to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin and arrive at ground rules—in fact, aerial rules, that would avoid unwanted confrontations in Syrian skies. A coordinating committee was set up consisting of senior officers from both sides. The rules they arrived at appear to have been met thus far by both parties, which are in ongoing contact.

Israel will not lightly tweak the Russian’s nose and the Russian appear to respect Israel’s strategic needs—particularly the prevention of advanced weaponry reaching Hezbollah from Syrian territory. Although it is possible to concoct scenarios in which the two sides come close to confrontation—if Russian warplanes attack moderate rebel groups close to the Golan border, for instance—the likelihood is remote. Neither side has yet issued a public statement criticizing the other.

Yaalon said this week that Israel has no interest in getting involved in what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East. "We do not intervene in the conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen or other places. We just protect our interests."

However, he said Monday, Israel is prepared for a conflict closer to home—with Hamas and its more radical allies in the Gaza Strip. "We’re enjoying unprecedented quiet," he said. "Hamas hasn’t fired a bullet. But it’s growing in strength. We didn’t think otherwise."

Hamas is preparing for the next round with Israel, he said, but it is encountering problems building up its rocket armory. "It’s having difficulty importing rockets (because of a blockade imposed by both Israel and Egypt) and there is a shortage of materials with which they could manufacture rockets themselves. They’re trying to improvise and, of course, building defensive and offensive tunnels (the latter, into Israel). We are not fooling ourselves to think they aren’t."

Israel is prepared for the possibility that the situation in Gaza will again erupt into armed conflict. "We’ll have to deal with it," he said. "We’re not stagnant. We will operate with both defensive and offensive measures."

Yaalon was speaking aboard the American destroyer, USS Carney, which is in Haifa as part of a joint Israeli-American anti-missile exercise. The American ambassador in Israel, Dan Shapiro, accompanying the Israeli defense minister, noted that the United States is involved with Israel in finding technological solutions to locating and destroying tunnels extending from Gaza into Israel.