On Thursday, December 24, Russia’s special envoy to Syria paid a secret visit to Israel for talks with senior officials, setting off alarm bells in Tehran and Beirut.
Alexander Levrentiev, personally appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin some weeks ago, arrived with Sergey Vershinin, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East desk and a large group of Russian intelligence officers. They were hosted by Yossi Cohen, Israel’s National Security Adviser and future Director of Mossad.
Iran and Hizballah are extremely stressed by the visible military and intelligence interchanges between Moscow and Jerusalem in relation to Syria. They are certain Washington approves. But they have had no luck with back-channel queries to Russian and American colleagues to find out what is going on.
This made both even more suspicious about hidden collusion having led up to the following events – or, in their view, a diary of disaster:
- December 20 – An Israeli rocket killed Samir Quntar, head of the Iranian and Hizballah terror networks in southern Syria, at his Damascus home.
- December 21 – Russian C-in-C in Syria, Col. Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, arrives at Iranian military HQ in Damascus to offer condolences for the death of Samir Quntar. He is turned away at the door on direct orders from the supreme leader in Tehran, reflecting Iran’s suspicions that Russia was complicit in the Israeli operation by turning a blind eye.
- December 22 – Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speak by phone and agree to boost their collaboration in anti-terror operations in the Middle East.
- December 24 – A Russian intelligence delegation arrives in Tel Aviv.
- December 25 – Russian warplanes strike a secret meeting of commanders of the Jaysh al-Islam organization and other Islamic rebel groups in southern Syria, killing its chief Zahran Alloush, who was considered the senior rebel commander in that area of the country, as well as many other Syrian rebel commanders. Until then, the Russians were short of this kind of precise intelligence on rebel commanders’ movements.
- December 26 – ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who did not miss any of those goings-on, breaks his seven-month silence with a 26-minute video. Among other comments, he declared ISIS would soon establish an Islamic state in Palestine, saying “Jews, soon you shall hear from us in Palestine which will become your grave.” In other words, ISIS is showing it has a say too in the course of events in southern Syria.
- December 27
– For the second time in three days, Russian intelligence targets a meeting of rebel commanders in southern Syria, sending Syrian army commandos to plant and remotely detonate bombs at their venue in the village of Kfar Shams near the city of Deraa. At least 17 rebel militia commanders are killed, breaking the back of the movement.
– Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah says retaliation for Samir Quntar’s assassination is inevitable; Hizballah will not tolerate the “blood of our jihadist fighters and brothers to be shed anywhere in this world.” Until then, he had been uncharacteristically reticent on the subject.
- Since then, the IDF has placed its forces along the northern borders with Syria and Lebanon on a high war footing.
Both Tehran and Hizballah suspect that precise intelligence feeds from the US, Israel, Jordan – or all three – have given Russia the handle for driving Syrian rebel forces to the verge of collapse in the South, unlike on other fronts. Putin is engaged in complicated tradeoffs with all four to achieve his primary goal of disarming the rebel threat to Assad from the south and strengthening the Russian position there.
Up to this point, Iran and Hizballah see eye to eye.
After that they differ strongly.
Tehran is quietly following Russian-Israeli collaboration, tacitly endorsed by Washington, because it gives Bashar Assad a valuable prop; whereas Hizballah’s Nasrallah, a chronic paranoiac, fears that when it comes to the crunch, the Iranians may throw him to the wolves to save Assad.
Why else would Iran stand by for the US and Russia to carve up the Syrian warfronts between them and for Russian-Israeli collaboration in southern Syria? Nasrallah asks himself.
(See DEBKA Weekly 668 of Dec. 4 on the Obama-Putin Euphrates Pact).
The Hizballah chief has come to believe that Israel is dealing out intelligence to Moscow to buy a Russian guarantee against allowing Iran or his own group to establish terror launching bases in Syria. Hence, the obvious way to stymie the Russian game is to threaten Israel with war.