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What Russia said to Israel after the Palmyra raid

A lot of speculation is swirling around nowadays concerning the words of Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari in relation to Israel’s illegal and aggressive airstrikes against the Syrian Arab Army near Palmyra last weekend.

Many people are interpreting Jaafari’s comment as conveying the idea that President Putin supposedly issued a threat to the new Israeli Ambassador, who was unprecedentedly summoned to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs just a day after presenting his credentials.

Before diving into what he really meant and why people are so confused, let’s take a look at Jaafari’s exact words.

As first reported by the Israeli media outlet Haaretz and then popularly shared by multipolar alternative media website 21st Century Wire, here’s what Jaafari said:

““Putin sent a clear message,” said Bashar Jaafari, speaking on Syrian television. “The fact is that the Israeli ambassador [to Russia] was summoned for a conversation only a day after he submitted his credentials [to the Russian Foreign Ministry last Thursday], and was told categorically that this game is over.” Syria’s use of anti-aircraft fire against Israel last Thursday night has changed the rules of the game, too, Jaafari said, adding that Syria will not stand idly by in the face of an Israeli threat.”

Nothing in this statement indicates that Russia threatened Israel with military retaliation if it continued to bomb Syria, though some people are spreading rumours that the ominous phrases “clear message” and “was told categorically that this game is over” apparently infer that such an idea was nevertheless conveyed.  That’s not true, first off because Ambassador Jaafari represents the Syrian Arab Republic and not the Russian Federation, and secondly because Russia is a strong and confident enough power to directly issue or convincingly imply such a powerful point itself.

So what did Jaafari really mean, then?

It’s indisputable that Russia was very displeased with what happened, hence why the Ambassador was summoned during his second official day on the job, but nobody knows what the exact nature of the “clear message” that he received really was. Did Ambassador Jaafari quote what he was told by his trusted Russian counterparts, or was he summarizing what he heard when he said that the Israel Ambassador “was told categorically that this game is over”? Another possibility is that this is just Ambassador Jaafari’s impression of what happened and that he wasn’t briefed on the specific contents of the conversation.

Now here’s where things get a bit tricky.

If one accepts the presumption that the Russians shared detailed information with the Syrians about their confidential scolding of the Israeli Ambassador, then the question naturally arises about whether or not such supposedly secret information concerning Russian-Syrian relations is also shared with the Israeli side as well. That would be very disturbing, to say the least, though thankfully there aren’t any grounds for reasonably speculating upon that. To put the shoe on the other foot, there’s also no evidence to argue that Russia shares Israeli secrets with Syria either.

Therefore, it is responsible to conclude that Ambassador Jaafari is just relating his impressions about what he thinks transpired, and not being a Russian surrogate in saying something which others are absurdly suggesting that the Kremlin itself might be too afraid to imply.

Now, about the whole “game is over” quip, that’s a pretty ambiguous yet loaded statement which means wildly different things to different people. It’s trendy right now to pretend that Ambassador Jaafari is hinting that Russia told Israel that it will never allow Tel Aviv to bomb targets inside of Syria ever again, possibly even threatening it with military retaliation if it dares to repeat its crimes. On the other hand, his statement could also be read as meaning that Russia scolded Israel without backing it up by military threats.

It’s difficult to get down to the bottom of what Russia told the Israeli Ambassador after last weekend’s attack and subsequent summoning, but an indication could possibly be seen in Russia’s attitude towards the US after its September 2016 hour-long bombing of the Syrian Arab Army in Deir ez Zor. At the time Russia immediately took its objections to the UN, going over the head of the US Ambassador in Moscow, and not even bothering to summon him.  Given that the scope and scale of the Deir ez Zor attack was much worse than what happened just recently in Palmyra, it wouldn’t make sense for Russia to treat Israel’s crimes worse than the US’, which is why Russia responded in the opposite way to Tel Aviv than it did to Washington and only summoned the Ambassador instead of going to the UN.

Let’s remember that the US reportedly targeted the Syrian Arab Army for a full hour during its September 2016 attack, meaning that the hostile aircraft were over the target area for a long enough time for them to be pinpointed and taken out by Russia’s S-400 air-defence systems…but they weren’t. This is because Russia’s mandate in Syria is only to fight terrorism and not to protect the country’s external borders from state aggression or intervene in backing up the Syrian Arab Army. This was reinforced when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov remarked in early May 2016 that:

Assad is not our ally, by the way. Yes, we support him in the fight against terrorism and in preserving the Syrian state. But he is not an ally like Turkey is the ally of the United States.”

If Russia won’t overstep its legal mandate in Syria and shoot down aggressive US jets which are bombing the Syrian Arab Army for roughly an hour and killing nearly 100 people, why would it shoot down Israeli jets which are causing comparatively less damage over a much shorter period of time?

And, if Russia didn’t publicly convey any implicit threat to the US to deter it from ever committing its crimes again (which the US has since repeated on several lower-profile instances against civilians), why would it use Syrian Ambassador Jaafari to slyly issue such a threat towards Israel?

The short answer is that Russia wouldn’t, and that’s why it never happened, and that’s the wrong interpretation for people to have made.

Now let’s talk about how the “rules of the game” changed.

This last part of Ambassador Jaafari’s comment is obviously in reference to “Syria’s use of anti-aircraft fire against Israel”, not anything related to what Russia speculatively told the Israeli Ambassador, as Jaafari finishes his remark by emphasising that “Syria will not stand idly by in the face of an Israeli threat.”

This should be loudly applauded by all sincere supporters of the Syrian Arab Republic because it demonstrates that Damascus is confident enough in its capabilities to finally take on Israel every time that it launches a similar sort of aggression.  Israeli Defense Minister Lieberman was so distraught by this that he freaked out and threatened to destroy Syria’s air defence systems if Damascus carries through on its promise to defend itself, evidently proving that the Syrians’ S-200 response last weekend got under the Israelis’ skin.

The “rules of the game” have certainly changed, Ambassador Jaafari is right, but supportive observers shouldn’t overreact and get too carried away in describing the new situational context.

Some people are pairing Al Masdar’s reporting that Syria informed Russia prior to its S-200 response to the Israeli aggressors with Ambassador Jaafari’s statement about the new “rules of the game” in order to imagine that Moscow gave Damascus the authorisation to respond to Tel Aviv.

This is a categorically wrong understanding of the facts. For starters, Russia doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have the right to give the final say to the Syrian Arab Army’s military command over whether or not they can respond to external aggression. That is a sovereign choice of Syria and her representatives only, not Russia. Moreover, even if this hypothetical situation was indeed the case, then Russia would have told Syria to stand down and not fire at the Israeli jet.

If Moscow wants all external aggressors out of Syria’s airspace, it could easily down them itself with its S-400 missiles, whether directly or by giving these systems to the Syrians and by having the Syrians themselves use this up-to-date world-class equipment instead of the relatively outdated S-200.

But then why did Syria inform Russia before shooting at the Israeli jet?

Well, that’s easy to explain, and it has to do with respect for one’s allies.

Syria acknowledges that Russia has very close relations with Israel, and that any sudden crisis between Moscow’s two partners would inevitably come to involve Russia to some extent or another. Prior to acting against the Israeli aggressors, Damascus let Moscow know what it was doing so that it could be prepared to diplomatically deal with the fallout and hopefully restrain Tel Aviv from launching the sort of “retaliatory” strike that Defense Minister Lieberman later threatened. It was wise and polite for the Syrians to tell the Russians what they were about to do, but they by no means were seeking the Russians’ prior approval. They were just notifying them.

As it turns out, a convincing piece of evidence has just emerged on none other than RT which casts serious doubt on the claims that Ambassador Jaafari’s statement should be implicitly understood as conveying threats from Russia to Israel. The outlet reported that Netanyahu just announced that he “informed Putin of Israel’s intentions” and that “if there is feasibility from an intelligence and military standpoint – we attack and so it will continue.”

If what the gossipers are saying is true and Ambassador Jaafari was for some unexplainable reason the public middleman in Russian-Israeli diplomacy and tasked by President Putin to deliver thinly veiled threats to Netanyahu, then the “clear message” that some people presume that he meant appears to have been completely ineffective.

Other people have invented an outrageous conspiracy theory that Netanyahu never actually said those words because there’s no video recording of him uttering them, thereby making this “fake news”. As promoters of such conspiracy theories are prone to do, they didn’t think this conspiracy out fully because otherwise they’d realise that there would be serious consequences if RT – a publicly funded international broadcaster of global renown – was tricked into disseminating “fake news” about President Putin and Netanyahu. In such a theoretical circumstance, they’d be compelled to issue a public retraction, yet none has been forthcoming. The reason why? The story and the quotes are true, no matter if scores of internet denizens say otherwise.

If Netanyahu didn’t actually speak with President Putin and just made it all up in order to trick RT and the rest of the world like some people ludicrously allege, then Russia would have naturally summoned the Israeli Ambassador to complain about it, which also hasn’t happened.

This brings the discussion to its final point, which is asking why – since it’s true that Netanyahu talked with President Putin and declared that he will continue to attack Syria whenever it’s “feasible from an intelligence and military standpoint” – Russia would passively allow this to continue happening.

The answer might be too shocking for many people to accept, but it might have to do with what President Putin himself publicly and proudly proclaimed in a joint press conference with Netanyahu in June 2016:

“We talked about the need to jointly fight against international terrorism. Israel knows by first-hand experience what it is and fights against terrorism. In this sense, we are true allies, our countries have enough experience in the fight against extremism. We will boost contacts with Israeli partners in this sphere,” Putin said.”

Russia and Israel aren’t just allies, but “true allies”, and they are “jointly fighting against international terrorism”.

Does this mean that Moscow believes Tel Aviv’s claims that Hezbollah is a “terrorist group” and that Israel only focuses on bombing it, not the Syrian Arab Army, every time that it invades Syria’s airspace?

No, it doesn’t, but Russia also isn’t going to get involved in this big Middle East mess any more than it already is, hence why it agreed to the creation of a military coordination mechanism with Israel during Netanyahu’s September 2015 visit to Moscow, which incidentally was around one week before Russia began its “surprise” anti-terrorist intervention in Syria.

Russia accepts that Israel will periodically carry out “surgical strikes” in Syria under the pretext of targeting Hezbollah, and since Moscow isn’t going to wage war to stop Tel Aviv, the next best thing that its decision makers believe that they can do is passively allow this to happen, and then mitigate any inadvertent clashes during such events.

The most likely reason why the Israeli Ambassador was summoned for the first-time ever in response to one of these many bombings is because the latest one occurred in very close proximity to Russian forces operating in the area, thereby putting them in immediate danger of being hit in the airstrikes themselves or being attacked by the terrorist offensive that Israel hoped to unleash afterwards.

This was needlessly irresponsible, as Russia sees it, hence why it had to embarrass Israel by summoning its Ambassador in response. Moreover, the very fact that such a close-call occurred between the Russian and Israeli militaries raises concern in Moscow that the previously agreed upon military coordination mechanism isn’t working how it is supposed to.  This puts Russian servicemen – the only military forces whose lives Moscow is legally responsible for in Syria – at grave risk, and explains the urgency with which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Israeli Ambassador.

Ambassador Jaafari was right – Putin did send a “clear message” and said “categorically that this game is over” – though not in the way that people, including His Excellency himself, might initially be led to believe, but in the sense that Israeli strikes in Syria will be much more closely (albeit discretely) coordinated with Russia from here on out in order to avoid any similar incidents which could inadvertently kill Russian servicemen.

This isn’t unsubstantiated conjecture, but is solidly backed up by what Foreign Minister Lavrov openly hinted at five days after the scandalous attack occurred. As reported by Sputnik:

“Russia will judge the implementation of the Russian-Israeli cooperation agreement on Syria by Israel’s actions, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday.

He added that during Netanyahu’s last visit to Russia earlier in March, the agreement between him and Putin had been clearly and fully confirmed, and that Russia “will judge how accurately this arrangement is carried out by our Israeli partners not on the basis of what they say but how they act,” Lavrov stressed.

“During Israel’s prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] second to latest visit to Moscow he and President [of Russia Vladimir] Putin achieved a clear agreement about the way Russian and Israeli militaries could cooperate in relation to the situation in Syria,” Lavrov said, commenting on last week’s Israeli strikes on the Syrian Armed Forces posts near Damascus.”

It’s difficult to imagine any way that this could sensibly be understood other than acknowledging that an “agreement” “about the way Russian and Israeli militaries could cooperate in relation to the situation in Syria” was “clearly and fully confirmed” “during Netanyahu’s second to latest visit to Russia earlier in March”, and considering that Syria has no formal relations with Israel and doesn’t even officially recognize it, it’s fair to conclude that Damascus had no input in the negotiations over this accord.

That’s not by any stretch of the imagination to infer that Russia is “working behind Syria’s back” (or worse, “backstabbing it”), but just to draw attention to the fact that both sides don’t always coordinate each and every single decision, no matter how large (geopolitical/military, as this one is) or small (tactical, for example) they may be. 

To wrap everything up, people can’t continue imagining that Russia is some sort of anti-Zionist crusader state. For better or for worse, that’s simply not true, and the bilateral military coordination agreement that President Putin and Netanyahu reaffirmed earlier this month over Syria — as revealed by none other than Foreign Minister Lavrov — is proof of that.

Ambassador Jaafari is one of history’s best diplomats and a masterful wordsmith, so it’s extraordinarily bizarre that anyone would conspiratorially interpret what should have ordinarily been an uncontroversial statement as a secret message of military hostility from Russia to Israel by means of this globally respected Syrian diplomat (and not Russia’s own).

Given that it’s regrettably the case that scores of misguided individuals misunderstood what Ambassador Jaafari had to say, the only recourse left however for individuals who sincerely desire to correct their false perception is to urgently invest the time in independently researching Russian-Israeli relations.

This is the only way for people to educate themselves about the high-level and comprehensive strategic nature of ties between Moscow and Tel Aviv, which in turn will prevent them from embarrassingly falling for cartoonish mischaracterizations about his powerful partnership.

Ignorance feeds on itself, and the less that someone knows about the truth, the easier it is that they’ll be misled by ideological dogmatists and social media charlatans with an agenda.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

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