Israeli spokesmen insist that their country had no intention of intervening in the Syrian war and its two air strikes against Damascus on May 3 and May 5 had the single goal of preventing advanced missiles and chemical weapons reaching terrorists – whether Hizballah or al Qaeda-linked rebel groups.
This argument fell on deaf ears Tuesday, May 14, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu put it to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The same indifference greeted his face-to-face bid to persuade the Russian leader to halt supplies to Syria of the highly advanced S-300 anti-missile weapons, for which he made a special journey to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
Netanyahu had also planned a presentation by Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who came with him, to demonstrate that the Syrian army was already using chemical weapons against rebel forces and that Damascus had transferred advanced weapons to the Lebanese Hizballah on orders from Tehran.
Putin was attended by Michail Fradkov, Director of the SVR intelligence service, whom the West rates as the Russian president’s most influential policy adviser.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly quotes well-informed Russian and Israeli sources as commenting wryly that Netanyahu was rather naive. He seemed to have missed the radical change in the Syrian equation which had occurred when Moscow threw its support behind Hizballah in a tacit deal Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov closed with Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut on April 27.
From Putin’s perspective, any action for strengthening Bashar Assad’s hold on power was legitimate and desirable. Moscow had therefore come around to welcoming the handover of advanced Iranian weapons to Hizballah, now that the Lebanese Shiite group had two elite brigades fighting for Assad and using some of those weapons against rebel forces.
Hizballah gains combat experience and kudos
This development illustrated the far-reaching damage resulting from the fateful US and Israeli failure to nip in the bud the Hizballah military influx into Syria in early April when the first units arrived in Homs to fight alongside Syrian troops, DEBKA–Net-Weekly’s military sources say.
Now it has gone too far to stop. Hizballah has moved 7,000 fighting men, 60 percent of its total strength, onto the battlefields of Syria.
Equally, the subsequent injection of thousands of Iranian Bassij militia fighters into the Syrian arena should have been cut short – but wasn’t.
US and Israeli strategists made the mistake of assuming that the bulk of Hizballah’s armed forces fighting in Syria would be exhausted and ground down by hard combat and in no shape to go to war against Israel in the foreseeable future after returning home.
They were totally wide of the mark.
Hizballah exploited its presence in Syria for direct access to the advanced weapons which Israel kept bottled up in Syria, and gained valuable combat experience fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Syrian army, Iranian units and Iraqi Shiite militias volunteering to fight for Assad’s cause.
Hizballah units proved their mettle in battle and deserve some of the credit for turning the tide of war in Assad’s favor.
Israeli air strikes did not change the course of the Syrian war
Military intervention in Syria gained Hizballah two additional major benefits.
Not only did its combatants collect advanced Iranian weapons directly from Syrian stores, but, as we disclosed in previous issues of this publication, Moscow has given the Lebanese Shiite group shelter under the safety umbrella it spread over Bashar Assad and his regime.
The second, more massive, Israeli air strike over Damascus and Mt. Qassioun on May 5 had no effect on the balance of war. Neither did it inhibit Iranian and Syrian efforts to keep Hizballah armed with advanced hardware.
Israeli warplanes did smash the depots holding ammunition and missiles held as strategic reserves for the decisive battle between Syrian army and rebel forces. However, the Syrian army’s recent gains have reversed most of the rebels’ achievements in more than two years of combat. Furthermore, Tehran’s daily airlifts to Syria are swiftly re-supplying the stores on Mt. Qassioun demolished by Israeli bombers.
Putin’s commitments to Assad and Hizballah prove unshakable
Understanding belatedly that Russia’s military commitments to Bashar Assad and the Lebanese Hizballah were rock solid, Netanyahu gave up trying to talk Putin out of selling more S-300 missiles to Damascus. He limited himself to seeking an understanding whereby the Israeli Air Force would refrain from striking those missiles in Syria, in return for a Russian assurance not to use them to down Israeli warplanes.
The Israeli prime minister hinted at the IAF’s ability to destroy the Russian missiles.
Putin did not respond to this offer except to question Israel’s ability.
(Read separate article discussing whether the Russians have cracked the US Missile Intercept Warning Systems codes).
After the Russian and Israeli leaders batted their views on Syria back and forth inconclusively for three hours, Netanyahu left Sochi deeply concerned by the depth of Moscow’s commitment to supporting Assad and Hizballah – up to and including their decision, egged on by Tehran, to launch a war of attrition against northern Israel from the Syrian Golan.
No sooner was he home than the action began with the shelling of Mt. Hermon Wednesday by a Palestinian terrorist group controlled by the Assad government.
Israel countered verbally with a warning relayed to the New York Times that night by a “senior official” that Israel will continue its military strikes on Syria to stop the transfer of advanced weapons to Hizballah and Islamic militants.
“Their transfer to Hizballah will destabilize and endanger the entire region,” the official said. “If Syrian President Assad reacts by attacking Israel, or tries to strike Israel through his terrorist proxies, he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate,” the Israeli official concluded, in the hope of averting the major eruption of violence threatened from the Syrian Golan.
Thursday, Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan arrived in Israel to discuss the Syrian war situation with Israeli leaders.