Israel Is Left with Iranian, Hizballah Forces up to Its Border
A deep sigh of relief swept through top Israeli government and military circles Monday, March 14, when they heard about the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria. One military official explained in answer to a question from DEBKA weekly: “The Syrian war is back to square one. The Russians tried to help the Syrian army, the Iranians and Hizballah to capture Aleppo, Idlib and the entire north, as well as Daraa and the entire south. Now that won’t happen.”
Another source put it this way. “What we care about most is South Syria. Had the Russian game plan played out in full, we would have been stuck with the Syria army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah sitting right on our northern border (the Golan) and the Jordanian frontier as well. Thankfully, that danger is past.”
Israel was further encouraged to hear from Moscow a commitment to remove the high-grade S-400 air defense missiles from Syria in the not-too-distant future, as soon as the Saudi and Turkish “threats” to intervene in Syria expire.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was somewhat less sanguine than Israel’s generals. He saw a major political drawback coming out of Moscow’s retirement from the lead military role on the Syrian stage. President Vladimir Putin’s close association with Tehran served as a useful inhibitor for containing Tehran’s drive for expansion in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The deep rift between Moscow and Tehran (more about which in a separate article), culminating in Russia’s virtual walkout, removed that lever. Taken in conjunction with America’s fading influence in the Middle East and the Obama administration’s lax handling of Tehran, it leaves Netanyahu bereft of buffers against Tehran and its designs.
The Russian military intervention in Syria in the second half of September 2015 was seen by and large in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in a positive light – albeit with a dash of sentimentality, always a mistake in political relations.
It opened up a dialogue between Israel and a major world power, which was especially welcome when the Obama administration was withdrawing from most Middle East affairs. Israel headed the queue for a joint mechanism with Moscow for coordinating their air force operations. Netanyahu was gratified by the friendship Putin showed him and Israel’s security concerns, betokened by the direct line he was given to the presidential office in the Kremlin when those concerns were impaired.
But Russia’s intervention in Syria was as much a mixed blessing as its exit.
In the five and-a-half months of the Russian military presence in Syria, Putin bent an ear to Israel’s arguments. But that’s as far as it went. In at least four instances, cited here by DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow and Jerusalem sources, the Russian leader heard Israeli requests and then did just the opposite, haring off in pursuit of his own agenda.
1. In the face of Israel’s objections, Putin deployed advanced S-300 and S-400 antiaircraft missiles to Syria.
2. He kept his promise to Netanyahu not to let Russian warplanes interfere with Israeli air force flights over Syria, but reneged on his commitment to keep them from intruding into Israeli airspace.
Some of those flights were undoubtedly reconnaissance missions to appraise the preparedness of Israel’s air defense systems.
3. Putin broke his promise to keep Iranian and Hizballah forces at a distance from the southern Syrian borders of Israel and Jordan. Russian officers on the spot let them pass through.
4. Putin promised to preclude terrorist groups’ deployment in southern Syrian for attacks against Israel. But Russian officers – with or without his knowledge – permitted Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hizballah officers to set up a Palestinian terror network in southern Syria for the object of infiltrating Israel for attacks.
The reduction of Russia’s military presence in Syria has done little all in all to scale down the perils that the Syrian conflict has generated for Israel. They loom large from the unresolved war situation in southern Syria and the arrival of Iranian and Hizballah forces on its border, under cover of advanced Russian air defense missiles.