JERUSALEM — In his first public address since Moscow began active military operations in Syria earlier this autumn, the commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF) alluded to ongoing Israeli activity in the skies of Syria and success thus far in preventing unintended clashes between Russian and Israeli instruments of air power.
"Our objective is to maintain our freedom of action; not to hurt anybody we don't want to hurt," Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel told the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Eshel told conference participants that the IAF was dealing with a new situation in which Israel must coordinate with some players — namely the US-led coalition against the Islamic State — while with others, it must engage in what is known as deconfliction.
"For us, it's new. The skies are crowded with coalition members, Russian speakers and others. And we have to take all this into consideration. … With some players, we're coordinating. With some other players, we take safety measures not to hit or be hit.
"Up until now, I think that we've been successful in maintaining our freedom of action and we have a good infrastructure to continue with that," Eshel said, emphasizing that he was speaking strictly at the operational level.
In keeping with Israel's policy of ambiguity, the IAF commander neither referred to nor acknowledged specific Israeli air strikes in Syria, two of which reportedly took place during the past month, one on Nov. 11 near the Damascus Airport and another on Oct. 31 in the Qalamoun mountain region bordering Lebanon.
He noted, however, that Israel routinely uses air power to enforce its so-called red lines in Syria by sending messages in ways that will not trigger unwanted escalation or all-out war.
"The constant challenge for us is how we can create a message that is effective and has the right impact, but remains under the threshold of conflict," Eshel said.
He added, "We need to adjust ourselves not just to be a big stick, but to be a scalpel which is used precisely, in low signature and effectively. This is not an easy thing to do, because you need both simultaneously. And which one to use depends on the situation."
Drawing on a social media metaphor, Eshel likened the IAF to the Israeli government's Twitter account, whereby it can send messages to Hezbollah, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad or their patrons in Iran.
"It's a kinetic message … to tell other players 'Don't cross those lines,'" he said.
According to the IAF commander, the Israeli government constantly uses the IAF to enforce its red lines so as to lessen the chance of miscalculation on the part of Israel's enemies. As an example, he cited the ongoing military buildup by Hezbollah and the Assad regime, parts of which are being dedicated to the ongoing Syrian civil war while other capabilities may be used to seriously threaten Israel.
"Think about a terrorist organization or a leader of a terrorist organization that somehow got a huge capability. He might be tempted to use it. We know how it will start, but we don't know how it will end. Overconfidence may lead them to miscalculation. So insisting on red lines also decreases the possibility of miscalculation and prevents war," Eshel said.
Speaking earlier Wednesday to Jerusalem Post conference participants, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu detailed Israel's Syria policy of not getting involved on behalf of any of the parties bleeding one another in the ongoing Syrian civil war; extending humanitarian assistance when possible; and assiduously enforcing its red lines.
"In Syria, I've made it clear we won't tolerate use of Syrian territory to attack us. We won't allow a second front against us in the Golan Heights or to allow the transfer of particularly lethal weapons – game-changing weapons – from Syria to Lebanon. We act on this policy," Netanyahu said.
He acknowledged that Israel has occasionally missed catching high-value weapons in real time en route to Lebanon. In such cases, Netanyahu said Israel has acted against Syrian Army stocks before they could be transferred to the hands of Hezbollah.
"We don't always identify these game-changing weapons when they pass Syrian territory courtesy often of Iran and always with Hezbollah doing the transport. And if we don't see it, we don't hesitate to degrade the stocks of the Syrian Army of the same weaponry in equal measure," Netanyahu said.
As for Israeli attempts to deconflict with Russian forces in Syria, Netanyahu said the two countries are working to ensure that they avoid unintended clashes. He referenced his Sept. 21 meeting in Moscow, in which he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to establish a mutual safety mechanism.
"I told Putin, 'Let's make sure we don't shoot down each other and let's make sure we're coordinated.' Their air defenses; our air power. We did that; what we call deconfliction."
According to Netanyahu, any diplomatic deal over Syria would have to reflect Israel's interests, which he said Israel would continue to defend.
"I can't tell you what will be the outcome of Russian involvement in Syria. But I can tell you I've defined Israel's interests under any scenario. … Whether there is a deal or not. … We can't accept a resolution in Syria that allows Iran and Hezbollah to attack Israel or to use Syrian territory to transfer arms or to make another front with which to attack Israel."
Following Netanyahu's conference appearance, his office announced that Netanyahu and Putin spoke by phone on Wednesday and decided to meet for further discussions at a climate conference in Paris in early December.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.