Israel’s new approach in Syria/ Gas cooperation opportunities

Missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria January 21, 2019. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Update from AIJAC

 

Update 01/19 #03

This Update deals with the aftermath of the exchange of fire between Israel and Iran and its proxies over Syria last Sunday and Monday – including the reasons Israel has moved to openly take credit for its military actions in Syria where previously it had followed a policy of deliberate ambiguity.

It also includes a piece discussing the potential for cooperation between Israel, Egypt and other eastern Mediterranean nations over energy, in the wake of the formation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo on Jan. 14.

We lead with a very good discussion of the Syrian events and the motivations of Israel, the Iranians and even the Russians, from top Israeli journalist Ben Caspit. Among his valuable revelations are that the missile fired from Syria at Israel was fired by Iranian forces from an area where Iranian forces are not supposed to be, was likely ordered at very high levels in the Iranian hierarchy, and Israel had intelligence about the launch in advance. Caspit argues that the Israeli decision to openly take credit for its strikes was intended to counter false claims of “victory” in Syria being put forward in Teheran by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani. For this insightful analysis in full,  CLICK HERE.

An additional analysis of these events comes from leading Israeli security correspondent Ron Ben Yishai. He analyses the behaviours of all the actors – Israel, Iran, Russia, even the Assad regime – in terms of the messages they were trying to send each other. He also dissects the delicate way the IDF has to try to achieve its goal of preventing a permanent Iranian military base in Syria without provoking a full-scale war. For Ben Yishai’s valuable take on what is really going on between Israel and Iran in Syria, CLICK HERE.

The final piece by former Israeli diplomat Michael Hariri is devoted to the opportunities for Israel represented by the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum – both with Egypt and beyond. It looks at the convergence of interests on energy encompassing Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, alongside Israel, and how one of the goals shared by this group is limiting Turkey’s role in developing the energy resources of the area. The acceptance of Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz in the Cairo forum, Hariri argues, indicates energy is becoming another driver of Israel’s improving relations with most of its Arab neighbours. For all of his discussion, CLICK HERE.

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Israel wins this round against Iran in Syria

Ben Caspit 
Al Monitor, January 23, 2019

 

On the afternoon of Jan. 21, after another round of the heavyweight fight of the year between Israel and Iran, the Israel Defense Forces’ Twitter account released the following tweet: It shows a map of the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf on the east to the Mediterranean Sea on the west, under the headline, “Iran, you seem to be lost.” Four red arrows on the map point to Iran’s geographic location with the caption, “This is where you belong,” while another red arrow points to the Damascus region with the text, “Iran is here.”

This tweet went viral quickly. It reflects the clear Israeli victory in this round as well, portrays Israel’s main arguments about Iranian meddling in another state, and a healthy sense of humor as well. Nevertheless, Israel realized that this was only the first boxing round with many more to come. Over the last year, Iran absorbed numerous blows from its Israeli adversary, but it is far from abandoning ship. A high-level Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “[Commander of the Revolutionary Guard] Qasem Soleimani evidently has a strong constitution. He keeps getting beaten up, but shows no signs of admitting defeat.”

The round of blows on Jan. 20 had been carefully prepared by both sides. The Iranians worked on it for many weeks, under the watchful eyes of Israeli intelligence. And Israel, for its part, meticulously prepared its response. According to a wave of publicity in the Arab media on Jan. 20, the strike was attributed to Israel. Israel evidently attacked Damascus’ international airport only a few days after the Russians announced their opposition to continued assaults on this very same airport. This happened on the afternoon of Jan. 20, during a wave of publicity in the Arab media, and then also during the night.

The Russians reacted to the attack only on the afternoon of Jan. 23. A Russian spokesperson said that Israel must stop attacking Syria. A Western diplomat, who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said that the reason the response arrived so late is simple: The Russians are embarrassed. They had assured Israel in the past that the Iranians will remain 80 to 100 kilometers from the Israeli border; and now, this has turned into an empty promise. On the afternoon of Jan. 20, the Revolutionary Guard launched a Ra’ad-type rocket toward Israel, from a base held by Soleimani forces near Damascus. And this is a region they are not supposed to be in at all.

It all began around 1 p.m. on Jan. 20. According to media reports, the Israeli air force carried out an unusual strike in the region of the Damascus international airport. Usually, Israel attacks at night. This time (which Israel has not taken responsibility for) it was carried out in the light of day. This probably was because of an immediate intelligence and operational opportunity that they didn’t want to pass up. The Syrians announced that the assault was halted and the missiles were intercepted. Evidently, their announcement has no basis in reality. On the other hand, an Iranian cargo plane belonging to the Revolutionary Guard, which was making its way from Tehran to Damascus at exactly that point in time, made a sharp U-turn and went home.

About an hour later came the Iranian response: the launching of a guided missile toward Israel. The Israeli Hermon touristic site was crowded at the time, with thousands of merry skiers following several stormy snow-days in the week preceding the event. The missile was supposed to create a large number of civilian casualties. However, an Iron Dome missile defense battery intercepted the Iranian missile above the site. The scene was surrealistic: a lovely sunny day, a ski site full of visitors. The skiers were busy photographing the snow-skiing on the ground when, unbeknownst to them, the cameras picked up interception of the missile in the skies above! Within minutes, this scene went viral on the social networks.

Israel has several defense layers against threats of this type. For example, if the Iron Dome does not work for some reason, next on the list is the Magic Wand (or David’s Sling) — an interception system for a longer range. One way or the other, the missile/rocket would be intercepted and a catastrophe would be averted. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was, at the time, making a historic visit to Chad, which included renewal of diplomatic relations after 40 years of disconnection. The new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, was only a few days into his new position.

All that didn’t prevent the system from operating the program that had been prepared in advance: IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis personally announced that the Iranian missile had been launched by the Quds Forces of the Revolutionary Guard themselves: not by a proxy, not militias, no agents or representatives but Soleimani himself. This was the “incrimination.” At night came the assault: Israel’s air force struck Damascus’ international airport, destroyed a large Iranian weapons storage area and flattened a large number of Iranian targets throughout Syria. On Jan. 22 it was announced that about 21 people had been killed in the Israeli attack: 12 of them were Iranians, the rest were Syrian soldiers.

On the weekend that preceded the event above, a large Russian military delegation completed a work-visit in Israel, in which security procedures between the armies were sharpened and enhanced. This included a special mechanism or system designed to prevent friction. On the night of Jan. 21 this mechanism underwent another especially sensitive test. The Israeli contact person called his Russian counterpart a short time before the assault and updated him. The Russians could not protest, because they were well aware that the launching of the Iranian missile proved that the Russians were not carrying out their side of the deal. Soleimani disregarded his commitments not to enter the “forbidden region,” and even launched missiles from that region, toward Israel.

Simultaneously, the following Israeli message was transferred to the Syrians: If you don’t interfere, we won’t harm you. If you retaliate, you will be harmed. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decided to retaliate. Syrian anti-aircraft batteries broke out with crazy shooting in every direction. Israel’s air force immediately destroyed seven to eight Syrian defense batteries, including launching trucks and stationary batteries.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani; Israel has become more public in part  to correct Soleimani’s false claims back to Teheran about his military losses.

When the dust settled, it became clear that this round was another undisputed Israeli victory. Soleimani again found himself in a region in which the IDF has a clear advantage over him. Israel leads in intelligence, rules the air, displays remarkable accuracy and operates almost undisturbed. There’s also one more thing: Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the midst of a rather messy election campaign, took Israel’s famous ambiguity policy — and cut it into shreds. Now he happily takes responsibility for every attack or missile fired by Israeli air force planes. In this context, Netanyahu has come under criticism. “Why is he bragging?” asked sources in the opposition, in a conversation with Al-Monitor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Why is he poking his finger in the other side’s eye, forcing them to retaliate?”

The truth is that there is a reason behind the Israeli haughtiness: Soleimani has been putting on a fake show for his bosses in Tehran, and the Iranian people in general. He keeps his military losses under wraps, enlarges the achievements and tries to create an imaginary picture of victory. Israel’s public announcements throw cold water on his attempts. Meanwhile, Israel is tensely following the internal debates within Iran, between President Hassan Rouhani’s supporters (who would love to wrap up all their Iranian interests in Syria and come home), and Soleimani, who continues to drag Iranian spiritual leader Khamenei toward “exporting the revolution.” Israel extracts a high price from him at every step, and runs to tell everyone else. And that’s the story.

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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Israel and Iran escalate their ‘war of messages’ in Syria

Analysis: Tehran and Jerusalem are busy sending each other explosive signals of what they and will not tolerate, while Moscow’s influence grows – but at what price?

Ron Ben-Yishai

The events of Sunday afternoon and Monday morning mark a turning point in the Syrian-Israeli arena. Each of the incidents were by themselves not unusual, but their occurrence in a sequence, one after the other, could well signal a new era in the “war between wars” currently being waged by Israel against the Iranian regime in Syria and against the transfer of high-quality weapons from Iran to its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah. All of the parties involved are sending violent signals to one another regarding their positions and their intention of continuing this campaign.

The most significant event was Sunday’s launch of an Iranian surface-to-surface missile at northern Israel, apparently by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards themselves and not by their Shiite militia allies. The launch of such a missile, although short-range, isn’t something that can be done on the spur of the moment. It requires preparation, like placing a launcher so that it won’t be spotted by Israeli intelligence; it requires an order from above, apparently from Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Suleimani himself. The Iranians are well aware what such a move will mean from the perspective of Israel, who could not show restraint and would attack more Iranian targets, which is what happened.

IAF strike on Syria (Photo credit: EPA)

Indeed, things have already happened that had never happened before. On May 10 of last year, the Revolutionary Guards fired dozens of surface-to-surface missiles at Israeli territory. Most of the rockets landed inside Syria, but four were intercepted by Iron Dome as they were about to enter Israeli territory. The IDF had been well-prepared for this incident, which came in retaliation for the killing of several members of the Revolutionary Guards and the destruction of hundreds of precision Iranian missiles inside Syrian territory. The IDF assessed that the Iranians would respond, and prepared for Operation Chess (or Operation House of Cards depending on whether you use the name given by the General Staff or the Air Force). The blow the Revolutionary Guards sustained at the time was designed to make an impact, for in response to the Iranian attack, the Israel Air Force struck and destroyed some 60 Iranian targets in Syrian territory.

This operation created an effective deterrent, and for a long while Iran refrained from direct confrontation with the Israelis. But there has been a recent shift. Iran has itself felt forced to respond to Israeli actions against it, perhaps because Suleiman was embarrassed when Israel ended the veil of ambiguity over its Syrian operations, and time and again more than hinted to the ayatollahs in Tehran, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, that their general was failing in his efforts to entrench himself in Syria, despite the enormous sums they had invested in this endeavor.

Therefore, it seems, Suleimani himself prepared another launch of an Iranian surface-to-surface missile by members of his Quds Force, the elite external arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Perhaps he did it to ensure that the launch was carried out properly and perhaps to make clear to Israel that Iran was no less determined to continue its consolidation in Syria. It’s reasonable to assume that the Iranians only prepared a single surface-to-surface missile to make clear that this was not a revenge attack, but rather as a signal to Israel. Otherwise, they likely would have launched a number of missiles. Perhaps under Russian pressure not to inflame the area, Suleiman sufficed with his one-missile signal, assuming that the Israeli response would be limited. And this is indeed what happened.

In contrast to what took place in mid-May, Israel on Monday morning only struck three or four Iranian targets, not dozens. Here too the message is clear: Israel is telling the Iranians that it wants to halt the entrenchment of the Quds Force in Syria, but is not interested in a war with Iran on Syrian soil.

Russia’s growing involvement

A similar signal was sent Sunday afternoon, when according to foreign reports, Israel attacked Syria, apparently in order to prevent the landing of a plane owned by the Iranian airline Mahan at Damascus International Airport. It is fair to assume that the plane was transporting members of the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian munitions from Tehran. The attack attributed to Israel took place shortly before the plane was due to land in Damascus, and the Russians were given a short time in advance, offering Moscow the option of instructing the plane to turn back to its starting point in Tehran. In other words, Israel acted in line with the rules of coordination with Russia, and as such Moscow did not condemn the actions attributed to Israel either on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.

But Iran decided to use the Sunday afternoon attack as a pretext for further action, and two hours after the plane returned to Tehran, the Iranians launched at Israel the surface-to-surface rocket that had been prepared in advance. Iron Dome batteries intercepted the rocket, and while it caused no damage and the skiing at the Hermon site continued as usual, Israel saw this as a severe provocation. As such, hours later it attacked Iranian logistical or intelligence targets in Syria.

And this time, too, Israel’s conduct was unusual. Before the pre-dawn attack Monday morning, Jerusalem apparently warned the Syrian regime via Russia not to activate its anti-aircraft batteries during the strikes. The Syrian regime did not heed this uncharacteristic message, sending dozens of anti-aircraft missiles at Israel’s planes and munitions, according to Syrian sources. Some of them hit several of the Israeli missiles launched at the Iranian targets.

IAF strike on a Pantsir S-1 anti-aircraft launcher near Damascus

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said Monday morning that since the Syrians did not comply with the warning, the Israel Air Force attacked and destroyed several Syrian batteries and launchers. According to Syrian reports, a large number of anti-aircraft batteries of all types, especially the modern ones, were partially damaged or completely destroyed.

The photographs published by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit clearly show a Russian-made Panstir S1 anti-aircraft launcher, also known as SA-22. The S1 combines a missile launcher, an anti-aircraft cannon and radar all on one vehicle. Furthermore, the pictures show Syrian anti-aircraft missiles that were struck by the IAF, causing them to fly from their launchers and detonate nearby.

Russia said that four Syrian soldiers were killed in the IAF strikes near Damascus early Monday. The announcement said that the first Sunday afternoon attack attributed to the IAF was carried out by four planes firing from over the Mediterranean Sea.

Such announcements illustrate Russia’s growing involvement in protecting Syrian skies and perhaps even the command of some Syrian antiaircraft. This is bad news, even though the Russians did not take a stand on Sunday and Monday and condemn Israeli actions (apparently because Israel acted according to the newly set rules), but it is clear that Russian involvement in Syrian airspace is increasing, which means that Israel’s freedom is decreasing.

A delicate dance

The main question now is whether this is the end of the current round of fighting or not. Israel has a vested interest in continuing the campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, but at the same time it also has a vested interest in returning to the ambiguity that for so long characterized the war between wars. It was this ambiguity that granted the Syrians and the Iranians the cover of plausible deniability, making it easier for them not to respond to attacks attributed to Israel.

It is also in Israeli interests not to provoke the Russians, thereby preserving the IAF’s freedom of movement in the skies above Syria. It is apparent that Israel is now firmly focused solely on the center of Syria, something that it is fair to surmise is part of the understandings with the Russians. Indeed, Israel is now focused on Iranian targets near Damascus, making it clear to the Russians that it will not accept a breach of understandings on their part.

Iranian facilities hit by the IAF (Picture credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The Russians promised Israel that the Iranians would be kept to a distance of 80 kilometers from the Israeli border on the Golan Heights, eastwards and northwards in Syrian territory. But in practice, the Iranians are at Damascus International Airport and in the Al-Kiswah area, just 40 kilometers from the border. They have storage facilities for missiles and other weaponry there, as well as the intelligence installations that Israel just attacked, sending a signal not only to the Iranians but also to the Russians that must abide by their word.

In the past, the Russians claimed that the IAF had endangered their people in Syria, and that Israel should be focusing its activities in the area of Damascus airport, where there are no Russian military personnel, but there are multiple Iranian storage facilities, as well as to the north and south of Damascus. This is a delicate and brittle game in which Israel and the IDF try not to upset the applecart as they work to achieve their strategic goals of preventing an Iranian military base on the Syrian side of the shared border, and stopping Hezbollah from acquiring high quality weaponry, in particular precision rockets.

The challenge now facing new IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi is to successfully transform the IDF into an army that can win this “war between wars,” which is being waged with semi-ambiguity as all parties involved are careful that the exchanges meant to send a signal do not devolve into actual fighting.

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Will energy be the next point of Israeli-Egyptian convergence?

By MICHAEL HARARI

Jerusalem Post, 21/01/2019

Participants in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo on Jan. 14-15. 

The current convergence of interests between Israel and Egypt comprises several layers that result from the dramatic developments in the Middle East in recent years.

The mid-January regional meeting in Cairo, during which a new regional gas forum was announced by seven eastern Mediterranean countries, illustrates the promising political potential embedded in the discovery of natural gas reservoirs in the Mediterranean. No less, it reflects the close relations between Israel and Egypt.

Israel and Egypt have maintained close political and security ties at the highest level in recent years, which remain covert for the most part. In a rare move, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi revealed it in January an interview to the American program 60 Minutes, referring to the close cooperation with Israel, including joint military efforts against Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula.

The current convergence of interests between Israel and Egypt comprises several layers that result from the dramatic developments in the Middle East in recent years: the turmoil during and after the Arab Spring; the regional threat posed by Iran, especially to the pragmatic Sunni states; terrorist activities in Sinai (that require Israeli-Egyptian cooperation, including a reassessment of the security annex to their peace agreement); and the Hamas control over the Gaza Strip. In addition, the Egyptian regime and military are still traumatized by the Muslim Brotherhood rule, which was in place from the ousting of Mubarak until the overthrow of Morsi. This further explains the joint Israeli-Egyptian efforts to defy the threat posed by fundamentalist Islamic movements, including Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The main gas fields and infrastructure of the eastern Mediterranean (Source: Tekmor Monitor)

Similarly, Egyptian and Israeli interests converge when it comes to the energy sector. Simply put, Israel wants to export part of the gas it discovered in the Mediterranean to its closest neighbors. An agreement to export gas from Israel to Jordan has already been signed. Egypt has recently discovered significant gas fields, but at least in the short term, it still needs energy for its local economy and Israel can help supply it. In the medium term, it will be possible to liquefy Israeli gas in Egypt (via two existing facilities there, which have not been in use for the last few years), and then to export it to more distant markets. Therefore, Israeli and Egyptian companies have held intensive negotiations during the recent years, which led to the signing of mutual agreements. However, both governments still need to give their consent, which will provide a legitimizing umbrella for strategic cooperation in the energy sector.

The warm ties described above should suffice to complete and implement these agreements signed by companies in the private sector. The level of trust between the Israeli and Egyptian governments is high, as exemplified by the recent visit to Cairo by Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz. Moreover, the gas forum that convened in Egypt, with participation of energy ministers from Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Egypt, illustrates the new international geometry that is emerging in the eastern Mediterranean.

The existing tripartite alliances – Israel-Greece-Cyprus and Egypt-Greece-Cyprus – are now joined by a new tripartite alliance – Jordan-Greece-Cyprus, and by the newly established Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. The existing and emerging alliances may expand and include additional countries, and the informal existing cooperation might institutionalize. Such developments would add positive Mediterranean dimensions to the complex dynamics in the region.

Turkey, an important regional player, is currently absent from these various geometric settings. The countries that are currently cooperating in the eastern Mediterranean share an anti-Turkish agenda – Egypt, Cyprus and Greece (each to a different extent), and Israel – whose relations with Erdogan lack trust and are characterized by harsh rhetoric, despite the realistic potential for Turkish-Israeli cooperation in the gas sector. The chances to realize this potential were one of the catalysts to the signing in 2016 of the Israel-Turkey reconciliation agreement. Since, and following new crises between the two countries, these chances have steadily diminished.

Will Israel and Egypt be able to translate their warm ties and convergence of interests into formal energy agreements at state-level? The motivation for them to do so is clear. However, the Egypt public still opposes any normalization of ties with Israel. After all, even during the Mubarak regime, the Egyptians did not welcome economic and socio-cultural cooperation between the two countries, despite the beneficial cooperation that took place around the joint industrial zones.

The launching of a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process will clearly help to improve this situation. It will create a more positive atmosphere in the region and above all a more favorable Arab public opinion. It can be assumed that the Sisi regime will succeed in overcoming domestic opposition. After all, energy cooperation between Israel and Egypt serves the interests of both countries, and perhaps Egypt will follow Jordan, who already formalized its energy cooperation with Israel, despite negative public attitudes in Jordan toward it.

The discovery of natural gas reservoirs in the eastern Mediterranean creates an exceptional convergence of interests between a number of countries in the region, including Israel and its Arab neighbors. This opens up a wide range of additional areas of cooperation, placing the Eastern Mediterranean on the “global map.” The visit of Steinitz to Cairo and the unique regional gas forum launched there may symbolize a significant step toward realizing the potential embedded in this region.

The writer is a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. He served as the Israeli Ambassador to Cyprus from 2010 to 2015.