Russia In Syria Makes Israel Sweat
Putin and Netanyahu: put to the test
NEW DELHI: Israel is perhaps the most worried about the Russian strong military presence in Syria, and while its leaders continue to insist that all is well, the concerns have been flagged by the Israeli government in meetings with the Russians since. Officially Tel Aviv has adopted a hands off approach but has sought assurances from Moscow that its ‘interests’ in the region will not be compromised.
At the first hint of a possible Russian intervention in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopped onto a plane to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and share his worry that Hezbollah and Iran will now be emboldened to form a joint front with Syria against Israel. Since the crippling defeat suffered at the hands of the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel has been allegedly following the policy of targeting and bombarding any shipments of military equipment it suspects are being sent for the Hezbollah.Officially, of course Tel Aviv denies this, but reports of several such targeted attacks have been reported in the West Asian media.
In January 2013 after the war, Israel drew this redline to ensure no sophisticated weaponry went into the hands of the Hezbollah. Recent articles in the media suggest that this ‘red line’ seems to be fast disappearing with the entry of the Russians into Syria. Netanyahu, speaking about the Moscow meeting with Putin, claimed, "I stood up for our principles: Israel attacks whoever attacks it. We will not allow Iran to transfer deadly weapons to Hezbollah from Syrian territory, or at least we will do everything in our power to prevent it; and we will not allow Iran to open an additional terrorist front against us in the Golan."
Putin, according to media reports, agreed to form a joint committee to coordinate military activities in Syria. However, currently the Russians are more interested in bombarding the Islamic State positions, in securing Syria, and in settling scores with Turkey that entered the picture by downing a Russian jet fighter. Russia has imposed strict sanctions against Turkey, with Putin now going a step further to make it clear that the retaliatory action will not stop at this. And that Turkey which is currently involved in an exchange of words with Russia, can expect and will get much more.
Israel is currently not in the scope of the Russian scheme, but is clearly worried about the impact on its strategic plans for the region. Putin is said to have assured Netanyahu that he can continue with the undeclared ‘red line’ of stopping arm shipments to the Hezbollah but the fear is clearly that this will not work on the ground. More so as the intent behind the regime change efforts led by the US, Nato in Syria were prompted by Tel Aviv to establish its supremacy in the region, politically and militarily. The problems facing Israel, thus, are manifold, more so as Putin has made it very clear that he is fighting the IS created by those who were working together for a change in the Syrian regime. He said that at least 40 nations were part of this global effort, and more recently has been targeting Turkey with evidence of its involvement in not just creating and promoting the IS but in entering into oil deals with the deadly organisation. A charge that Turkey has contested.
Russia thus stands at the other side of the spectrum and while Putin has taken great care to make it clear that he is in Syria to fight the IS and not necessarily support Assad, the political reality seems otherwise. More so as a senior Syrian official told The Citizen, “the Russians have ensured that our country does not disintegrate now.” Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, earlier Yemen are all seen by Israel as its opponents. Iraq and Libya that fell in the same category for Tel Aviv have since been destroyed by the US led coalition,
Interestingly, currently Israel is taking pains to emphasise that there are no difference with Russia and both are working well together, coordinating military intelligence and joint reconnaissance for instance. This could not be independently confirmed but reports quoting Israeli officials have appeared in the media, with no confirmation or for that matter denial by the Russians. From his statements it seems fairly clear that President Putin has decided on unilateral action against the IS even as he encourages others to join him. He was not looking for any trouble with the neighbouring countries, and the Turkish action thus came as a surprise leading to a dramatic escalation of Russian military presence and equipment in Syria to make it clear that this was not acceptable at any level. More so, as the war against the IS was not intended as a threat to any country’s sovereignty in the region.
Israel for the moment has little choice but to accept this. But in the process it has several concerns that can be listed as:
1. The rapid dilution of the ‘red line’. Nadav Pollak, a former analyst for the government of Israel who also served as an NCO in the IDF Intelligence Corps has pointed out in a recent article:Consider this scenario: Israel detects an arms convoy in Syria it believes is on its way to Hezbollah. Through the joint committee with Moscow, Israel notifies Russia that it has credible intelligence that suggests that this convoy is heading to Hezbollah. Russia asks for Israel to present the intelligence indicating Hezbollah’s involvement. Israel, in order to not endanger sensitive intelligence sources, does not show Russia the incriminating evidence, fearing Russia will share this intelligence with Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria. In response, Russia declares that it sees no such threat and warns Israel that an Israeli attack on Syrian territory would interfere with Russian operations in the country. Israel would then find itself in a bind: allow the arms convoy to reach its destination, or challenge the Russian military. Given the advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles recently installed in Syria, Israel would need to think hard before ordering an attack deep inside Syria. This leaves Israel with the possibility of targeting the convoy the minute it crosses into Lebanon, but that option is risky too, as it could mean escalation with Hezbollah.”
2. Israel has lost its military supremacy in the region with the Russians advent. This is a matter of deep strategic concern, more so as Israel virtually controls the airspace over thousands of kilometres, as part of its “expansive security doctrine.”
3. Russia will restrict Israeli military strikes. In September this year President Putin was openly critical of Israel’s decision to target Syrian posts along its border. This led experts at the time to observe that Russia will not take kindly to such military action in the region, more so while it is physically present in Syria.
4. There is no time frame set or given. The Russians who had a strategic presence in West Asia but were not able to preserve it in the face of the US led offensive, have clearly moved back in to ensure a balance if not more. This will take doing with President Putin currently clear that he will not rest until the IS threat is mitigated.
The future has suddenly become unclear for Israel that was gaining dramatically in the war launched in West Asia by the US and the Nato. As Netanyahu himself said when asked what the Russian presence would herald for Israel, only time will tell.