Syrian state news agency SANA said this morning that Israeli jets had allegedly fired a number of missiles at the port of Latakia. Reportedly, the strikes targeted the container terminal at the port, causing large explosions and fires. No injuries were registered. This morning’s report joins a Dec. 7 report by SANA of an alleged similar aerial hit on the Latakia port. Much like today’s attack, it destroyed shipping containers and caused a fire. The target was apparently an Iranian weapons shipment. Israeli authorities declined to comment on either of these incidents.
Foreign media claims that Israel had avoided over the years targeting the Latakia port and its environs in an effort to avoid hurting the Russian military presence nearby. This, despite Iran allegedly using the terminal to transport advanced munitions through it to Hezbollah and other proxies in the region. In fact, under the Netanyahu government, Israel and Russia had agreed on a deconfliction mechanism. This mechanism means using communication channels between armies on both sides to prevent Israeli and Russian forces from clashing in Syrian skies. At their Oct. 22 meeting in Sochi, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to continue with this mechanism.
The deconfliction mechanism is strategically of great importance to Israel. Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid are in constant contact with Moscow in an effort to deepen bilateral relations in many spheres. Iran and Syria are a priority. On Dec. 27, hours before the report about the alleged Latakia attack, Lapid spoke on the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Lapid tweeted after the phone call, "I spoke today with my good friend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on a wide range of regional topics and key issues. We arranged to meet as soon as possible and in accordance with the [coronavirus] restrictions."
The phone call between the two ministers took place just as the second round of Vienna talks on the Iranian nuclear program resumed. And while the short tweet of Lapid hinted that the two ministers discussed the Vienna talks and Iranian presence in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the two men primarily discussed Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the situation of Russian and Orthodox Church real estate in Jerusalem. Moscow has been diplomatically engaged for several years in reclaiming property rights for the Orthodox Church over land plots across Jerusalem, leased for the most part to Israelis for a period of 99 years, and concerning other real estate disputes in the city.
Lapid’s comments about the two ministers intending to meet as soon as coronavirus restrictions enable them to do so also raised eyebrows. On Dec. 11, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced it had canceled a regional trip by Lavrov to the region without explaining the reasons behind the cancelation. The Russian foreign minister was expected to travel to Israel, the West Bank, Algeria and Morocco. In Israel, he was set to meet with Bennett, Lapid and President Isaac Herzog.
The labor association of the Israeli Foreign Ministry claimed the visit was canceled over a strike it was planning for the exact day of the visit, but this was never confirmed officially by any of the sides. Some Israeli analysts suggested that Lavrov decided not to meet with Israeli leadership at this exact moment, between two rounds of Vienna talks, so as not to enter into open diplomatic disagreements. It is no secret that in the framework of the UN Security Council, together with China, Russia firmly opposes the Israeli stance on Iran.