Up until Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s talks with President Vladimir Putin Moscow on Wednesday Nov. 11, Israel made clear in every way possible – diplomatic and military – its resolve to prevent Iran and its proxies from establishing a presence in Syria.
The resolve to remove Iran, Hizballah and the other Shiite militias under Revolutionary Guards command was emphasized for the umpteenth time on Tuesday, before Putin’s special emissaries. His special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin arrived in Jerusalem for another try to shift Netanyahu from his all-or-nothing stance on Iran. With them was a large Russian delegation of security and military officials from the Operations Division of the Russian General Staff and intelligence units specializing in Syrian affairs.
The prime minister complained about lack of trust after Putin’s repeated violations of his promises to Israel regarding Syria. But the biggest problem still be confronted is Iran’s intransigent determination to stay in Syria which is equal to Israel’s determination to drive this arch enemy off its Syrian doorstep.
This impasse was amply illustrated on Sunday. Israel insisted on keeping up its military attacks on Iranian command posts and depots filled with new weapons constantly flown in to Syria, while deterred Hizballah and Iraqi, Afghan and Shiite militias were undeterred from advancing on Israel’s borders, even in Syrian army uniforms. This week they are shortening the distance to their goal day by day.
Putin can’t, or won’t, push the Iranians out of Syria to meet Netanyahu’s demand. Without the Iranian militias, the crumbling Syrian army is no shape for conducting substantial ground operations to recover all the areas still in rebel hands. The Iranian proxy input was pivotal in the battles two months ago around Damascus and now, too, in the ongoing Syrian offensives in the southwest.
And so, while Putin gave US President Donald Trump and the Israeli prime minister solemn promises to keep pro-Iranian forces out of the operations going forward in the south, at the same time, he deployed the Russian air force in their support for bombing rebel positions.
Netanyahu is meeting Putin Wednesday for the third time in six months. At each meeting, he was forced back into concessions to pay for Russia turning a blind eye to Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. The prime minister first agreed to Iran and its proxies holding back in positions that were 80km from Israel’s border; he then agreed to 40km and now Israel is clinging to the 1974 Separation of Forces accord signed with Syria at the end of the Yom Kippur War. This is tantamount to permission for the Syrian army and its (Iranian) allies to move up to 10km from the border and in some places only a few dozen meters from the Israeli Golan and Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) basin.
But even that Israeli concession is being whittled down. Tuesday night, the Russian UN mission led an Iranian and Syrian bid to curtail the authority of UNDOF, the international force monitoring the demilitarized zone marked out in the 1974 treaty. Once again, the Russians are two-timing Israel to protect Iran’s presence in Syria.
Until now, the IDF did not step in to arrest the serious slide in Israel’s strategic position vis a vis Iran’s menacing proximity to its northern border. It also silenced operations in the run-up to the prime minister’s meeting with Putin. But the price for Russia’s blind eye to Israel air strikes against Iranian targets has become excessive. Time has run out for deliberating whether this price was worthwhile or an inquiry into the failure of Israel’s often lethal air operations to break Iran’s resolve. Hizballah and other Iranian cohorts are too close for Israel to indulge in soul-searching. Netanyahu’s critical conversation with Putin on Wednesday is the last one before Jerusalem decides whether to go to war in Syria against Iran, Hizballah and the militias. Putin is not keen on another war front developing in Syria, but neither is he willing to throw the Iranians out. President Trump too is deeply reluctant to engage in any further military combat in Syria. So it is now up to Israel alone to make and carry through this fateful decision.