As the situation in Syria becomes more and more complex, a seemingly minor bit of news over the weekend signaled just how little it might take to turn what is currently a regional struggle with some international participation into a much broader conflict.
On Monday, Russian media reported that what appeared to be a mortar shell, fired from an area controlled by fighters believed to be loyal to the terrorist group ISIS, had been fired at the grounds of the Russian embassy in Damascus.
According to the government-run news agency TASS, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued Monday morning read, “At 09:00 a.m. on September 20, a mortar shell hit the territory of the Russian embassy in Damascus. The shell was driven deep into the earth and [did] no damage.”
The Foreign Ministry statement indicated that the Russian government is investigating the incident and added, “We condemn the criminal attack on the Russian diplomatic representation in Damascus. We expect a clear position over this terrorist attack from all members of the international community, including regional parties.”
If it were determined that the attack on the Russian embassy was deliberate, the Kremlin could credibly claim that it represents an act of war. The U.S. State Department, for example, notes that international rules view an attack on a nation’s embassy “as an attack on the country it represents.”
Russia has already demonstrated a desire to engage more closely in the region, particularly in Syria, where the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been under assault for the past several years by rebels engaged in civil war as well as by ISIS, which crossed the border from Iraq and controls a substantial amount of Syrian territory. The Assad regime, widely condemned for torturing political opponents and attacking its own citizens with barrel bombs has become largely dependent on aid from Russia, one of its few remaining allies.
The embassy attack comes as Russia is ramping up its effort to prop up Assad. Russia has moved attack helicopters, fighter jets, tanks and an unspecified number of personnel into Syria in recent weeks, and has left the door open to further escalation, including ground troops.
Asked about the possibility of providing such additional aid, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday, “If there is a request, than in the framework of bilateral contacts, in the framework of bilateral dialogue, it will, of course, be discussed and considered. For now, it is rather difficult to speak hypothetically.”
Increased Russian military activity in the region is adding multiple new stresses in a part of the globe already roiled by ethnic, religious and political tensions. It also creates the necessity for significant cooperation between multiple powerful military forces operating in the region. Russia now joins the United States and several of its NATO allies which along with Israel have at different times in recent years engaged in hostile action Iraq and Syria.
To that point, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday made a whirlwind trip to Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Among the Israeli leader’s chief concerns is that in aiding the Assad regime Russia will almost certainly be giving de facto assistance to the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Syrian forces against ISIS. Hezbollah, when it isn’t fighting ISIS for Assad, is usually busy trying to bring about the destruction of Israel.
Israel has long reserved the right to take military action against Hezbollah when it feels threatened, and the presence of Russian troops in Syria – particularly fighter jets and helicopters – raises the possibility of Russian and Israeli personnel inadvertently clashing.
In a statement delivered in Moscow, Netanyahu pointed out that “in recent years and even more so in recent months, Iran and Syria have been arming the radical terrorist organization Hezbollah with advanced weapons, which are aimed at us,” Netanyahu said. “Meanwhile, Iran, as the benefactor of the Syrian army, is trying to build a second terror front against us from the Golan. Our policy is to thwart the flow of these weapons, and to prevent the establishment of a new terror front and attacks against us from the Golan.”
“I thought it was very important to come here, both in order to make clear our positions, and also to ensure there will not be any misunderstandings between our forces,” he said.
For his part, Putin brushed off Netanyahu’s concerns. “We have always condemned the rocket attacks on Israel, but as far as I know those rockets are home-made,” Putin said. “As for Syria, we know and understand that the Syrian army and the country in general are not in a condition to open a second front. The Syrians are busy fighting for their own statehood.”