Is the US-Russian Syrian Deal Good or Bad for Israel?
Israel’s leading policy-makers and security officials were sharply divided this week over whether the steps the US and Russia have set in motion in Syria benefit or harm Israel’s interests. These differences focused on the Obama administration’s concession to Moscow in support of allowing Bashar Assad to remain in power.
One senior Israeli official in Jerusalem commented sarcastically to DEBKA Weekly sources, “Our top people have suddenly changed their tune.” Others now determine that the Islamic State poses the greater threat to Israel compared with Iran and Assad rolled in one, or even, “It’s good that the Russian army has arrived in Syria right now.”
None of these officials, oddly enough, addresses the presence of Israel’s arch-enemy the Shiite Hizballah in Syria, except as a small detail of the big picture.
By and large, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report, Israel’s defense chiefs are divided between two schools of thought: supporters and opponents of the new US-Russian understanding for Syria.
IDF chief of staff Lieut. Gen. Gady Eisenkot leads the first school.
He is heard saying in formal and private discussions that Assad’s ouster is no long a national priority and that it is pointless to keep on trying to break the military bond between Iran, Syria and Hizballah.
His argument hinges mainly on the asset Israel is gaining from the smooth coordination between the Russian and Israeli air forces for avoiding clashes. Moscow’s military presence in Syria is a guarantee, in the Israeli general’s view, that those three foes will not act out their hatred of Israel, so long as the Russians remain in Syria and call the shots there.
Eisenkott repeatedly stresses that the IDF is the only Middle East army with which Russia is willing to maintain this level of coordination. He praises the sensitivity of Russian officers in Syria to every Israeli request and issue, attributing this receptiveness to directives from the top, i.e. President Vladimir Putin in person.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon takes the opposite view.
He does not negate the perils posed by ISIS, but does not see Daesh as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Even if the jihadists manage to plant cells and activate them for large-scale terror attacks, Ya’alon is confident that Israel can count on its informal anti-ISIS coalitions with Egypt and Jordan – and partly with Saudi Arabia – to beat the jihadist terrorists down.
For the defense minister, the greatest menace facing Israel comes from the Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah bloc. In contrast to the IDF chief, who prefers to focus the national war effort on fighting the Islamic State, Ya’alon calls for urgent action to smash Assad and his regime, which he calls the vital Syrian link binding Iran and Hizballah.
Severing that link is absolutely essential, he argues, for breaking up the collaboration between the two Shiite armies dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
If this is not achieved, the minister predicts that Israel will soon have to contend with a combined Iranian-Hizballah army, the latter no longer a paramilitary terror group but a military force hardened by combat in Syria and professional enough to undertake a serious invasion of Israel.
It is up to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to choose between these opposing viewpoints in order to retool Israel’s policy and defense strategy in the light of the new world power setup taking shape in the Syrian arena. The question DEBKA Weekly’s military sources ask is: How long will it take for a decision on this most pressing issue?