The Syrian military “did not fully employ” its air defense system so as to “guide [the] civilian aircraft” out of danger, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement carried by the Interfax news agency. It said Syria’s air defense batteries intercepted 14 of 16 Israeli guided missiles.
The statement is Russia’s latest rebuke of Israel over its repeated air raids in Syria, after a Russian military plane was accidentally downed by Syrian antiaircraft fire targeting Israeli fighter jets in September. At least 11 Russian military personnel were killed in the crash.
Israel rarely acknowledges its military strikes in Syria, which have targeted Iranian military installations and arms shipments to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Israel’s military said Tuesday that one of its aerial defense systems was activated “in response to an antiaircraft missile launched from Syria.” It did not elaborate.
But officials have said that Israel will act in Syria to protect its national security.
“We are not prepared to accept the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, which is directed against us. We will act against it vigorously and continuously, including during the current period,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday at a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots. He did not specifically mention the strikes.
The air raids come at a particularly tense time after President Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, where they are supporting Kurdish-led fighters battling the Islamic State militant group.
Israel worries that a U.S. pullout will remove an important check on growing Iranian influence in Syria, where Tehran commands thousands of proxy fighters, including Hezbollah. Their presence secures an important strategic foothold stretching from Iran to Lebanon, where Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, has beefed up its arsenal in anticipation of an Israeli attack.
“I have said that we will not be deterred from doing what is necessary,” Netanyahu said. “President Trump’s decision to withdraw the American soldiers from Syria will not change our policy. We are standing steadfast on our red lines in Syria and everywhere else.”
According to Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, Israel feels it is “essentially alone in the task of back-walling the Iranian military presence in Syria.”
The U.S. decision “feeds the notion that is prevalent in the region, even if it’s not entirely correct, that the U.S. is withdrawing,” Zalzberg said. “Many people draw delight from this, specifically in Tehran and Moscow.”
In recent weeks, Israel has embarked on an operation called Northern Shield to detect and destroy cross-border tunnels that it says Hezbollah has dug on the Israel-Lebanon frontier. Israel says it has discovered five tunnels connecting southern Lebanon and Israeli territory.
Israel has used seismic sensors and ground-penetrating radar to detect the tunnels, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman.
Israel and the United States last week called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to highlight the tunnels.
Ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu said it was time for the international community to hold Lebanon, Iran and Hezbollah accountable.
“Lebanon is doing nothing at best, colluding at worst,” Netanyahu said in a rare briefing for international reporters in Jerusalem.
Hezbollah and its allies won a majority of seats in the Lebanese parliament in May, but a government has not yet been formed.
“My message is: Hezbollah is putting you in great jeopardy,” Netanyahu said in remarks directed at Lebanese officials.
Cunningham reported from Istanbul.