Earlier this month, in “Israel Conducts Secret Training Exercises Against Russian Air Defense Systems,” we highlighted a Reuters report which suggested that Israel has been conducting tests against an S-300 missile system in Crete.
“Israel has quietly tested ways of defeating an advanced air-defence system that Russia has deployed in the Middle East and that could limit Israel's ability to strike in Syria or Iran,” Reuters wrote, adding that “a Russian S-300 anti-aircraft system, sold to Cyprus 18 years ago but now located on the Greek island of Crete, had been activated during joint drills between the Greek and Israeli air forces in April-May this year.”
This is significant for a number of reasons.
First, Russia is set to supply Iran with S-300s. The deal - worth some $800 million - was signed in 2007, before being mothballed by Russia three years later due to international sanctions. Putin unfroze it in April. As BBC wrote last month, “Israel and the US fear the missiles could be used to protect Iranian nuclear sites from air strikes.”
The IAF test against the S-300 is also notable due to Russia’s deployment of S-400 missile defense systems in Syria following Turkey’s brazen move to shoot down a Russian Su-24 near the border late last month. Here’s what we said three weeks ago:
When it comes to battling Hezbollah, there’s no question that the Russian and Iranian presence is hindersome. Israel can’t, after all, simply fly over Latakia and bomb Iran’s militias as Hezbollah is effectively operating as Moscow’s ground force. Additionally, the Russians are now hyper-sensitive about potentially hostile aircraft which is why The Kremlin sent the Moskva to the coast and deployed the S-400s.
Around the time Russia began flying sorties from Latakia at the end of September, Putin met with Netanyahu in an effort to ensure that there would be no "accidents" in the skies above Syria. Predictably, the Israeli PM reiterated concerns about advanced weaponry falling into the hands of Hezbollah.
Needless to say, this is a decisively delicate situation for the Israelis. There's no question that Hezbollah will be better armed now that they are effectively operating as a Russian ground unit. Moscow's alliance with Tehran (and hence with Hezbollah) is a thorny issue but Netanyahu isn't particularly keen on antagonizing The Kremlin.
Officially, Israel is "neutral" when it comes to the conflict in Syria, but make no mistake, there's nothing "neutral" about Netanyahu's stance on Iran, the Quds, and Hezbollah.
"What is our policy in Syria? We say: We do not intervene. We have an opinion as to what we would like to be there. But we are not in a position nor do we have the status, for sensitive reasons, to say we are in favor of Assad or against Assad," defense minister Moshe Ya'alon said in November. He also claimed that Israel had armed no side in the civil war.
Whether that's true of not is certainly up for debate, but when it comes to Israel and Syria's five-year old civil war, the question has always been how Netanyahu intends to reconcile Tehran's powerplay with Israel's desire to check Iranian influence anywhere and everywhere it manifests itself. As noted above, Russia's alliance with Iran has complicated this immeasurably. Indeed, the tests agains the S-300 appear to be (in part anyway) an effort to determine whether the IAF could hit Hezbollah in Syria without getting shot down by the Russians.
On Sunday, we got the latest bit of evidence which supports the notion that Netanyahu's trigger finger may be getting itchy the closer Hezbollah and Iran get to cementing control of Syria's major urban centers in the western part of the country. As mutliple wires reported earlier today, infamous Lebanese militant Samir Qantar was killed in Damascus by a suspected Israeli airstrike on Saturday evening.
“At 10:15 p.m. on Saturday December 19, Zionist warplanes struck a residential building in Jaramana city in Damascus countryside. The dean of liberated detainees from Israeli prisons, brother Mujahid Samir Kuntar was martyred along with several Syrian citizens in the strike," Hezbollah said, in a statement.
As Reuters notes, Kuntar was "jailed in Israel for his part in a 1979 raid in Israel that killed four people [and] was repatriated to Lebanon in 2008 in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, which he is then believed to have joined."
As CNN recounts, "an Israeli court sentenced him to 542 years. He was age 16 at the time of the attack. Among the Israelis killed was a 4-year-old girl and her father."
?? ??? ??? ???? ?????? ???? ??? ?????? ???????? ?????? ??????? ???? ??????? ??? ?????? ??????? ?? ???? ????? ????... https://t.co/l3D0SQOadT— Bassam Alkantar (@balkantar) December 20, 2015
Here's an account of Kuntar's crime from The Times of Israel:
A Lebanese Druze, Kuntar became infamous for a brutal 1979 raid from Lebanon in which he helped kidnap an Israeli family from Nahariya, then smashed the head of a four-year-old Israeli girl, Einat Haran, with his rifle butt, killing her. Three other Israelis, including her father, Danny Haran, were killed in the attack. Kuntar was 16 at the time, a member of the Palestine Liberation Front.
He spent 29 years in an Israeli prison before being traded to Hezbollah in 2008 in exchange for the bodies of IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. After that, he took on a senior role in the group, was honored by then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and by Syrian President Bashar Assad, and helped to organize Syrian Druze on the Golan Heights and elsewhere into terror cells charged with carrying out attacks against Israel.
ToI goes on to say "Kuntar had an apartment in the building that was targeted and he had been in the building for at least 12 hours" at the time of the attack. Here's a video of the aftermath:
The attack was reportedly carried out from within Israel, but Israeli officials declined to confirm the strike. "Israel has formally kept out of Syria's civil war which started almost five years ago but has bombed Hezbollah targets there without publicly acknowledging these sorties," Reuters notes. The National Defence Forces in Jaramana, an Assad support network, said "two Israeli warplanes carried out the raid which targeted the building in Jaramana and struck the designated place with four long-range missiles."
"I am not confirming or denying anything to do with this matter, but it is good that people like Samir Qantar will not be part of our world," Israeli Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Gallant said on Sunday. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who Reuters notes has “accused Qantar of overseeing covert Hezbollah entrenchment on the Golan Heights" said the following: “He set up a broad terror network on the Golan, and it is good that he returned his soul to his creator."
Right. So Israel assassinated him, plain and simple. The question now is what Hassan Nasrallah plans to do about it.
"Kuntar is considered an important symbol for Hezbollah as was evidenced by the much-attended ceremony in which he was welcomed in Beirut in 2008 after he was released from prison in Israel in a prisoner swap, by his personal audience with Nasrallah and his meeting with then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad," the Jerusalem Post says.
Here's more from The Post:
In addition to Kuntar, Farho Sha'alan, his partner in his terror enterprise and additional field commanders were also killed. In the last two years, the pair established a frontline group called the "National Syrian Opposition in the Golan," backed by Hezbollah, the Quds Force and Bashar Assad's Syrian Intelligence.
The belief is that even if Nasrallah and the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani (who is responsible for operating Hezbollah) decide that they cannot let the attack go unanswered, it is not in their interest to do so on the Israel-Lebanon border, because Israel would respond with great force.
Actually no. It is "not in their interest to do so" because Hezbollah and Iran won't want to open a two front war.
Of course the most amusing thing about all of this is that both sides accuse the other of being "terrorists". Kuntar's actions (both past and present) are branded "terrorism" by Israel while Iranian Foreign Minstry spokesperson Hossein Jaber Ansari said the strike represents "the most dangerous form of state terrorism."
If Hezbollah and the Quds do indeed decide to retaliate, it will be interesting to see how far Israel is willing to go in terms of hitting back. Russia is fully aware of Israel's desire to hit Hezbollah targets and as long as that doesn't hinder Moscow's efforts to restore the Assad government, The Kremlin will likely look the other way. However, if Kuntar's assassination leads to a wider conflict between Israel, Iran, and Hezbollah and that conflict spills over from Lebanon into Syria, Putin may decide it's time to adopt a less conciliatory position vis-a-vis the Israelis.