Israel’s Vanishing Red Lines in Syria
Russia’s intervention in support of Bashar al-Assad is making it a lot more difficult for Benjamin Netanyahu to keep the Iranian threat at bay.
TEL AVIV, Israel — Gen. Nikolai Bogdanovsky, the Russian military’s deputy chief of general staff, paid a rare visit to Israel on Tuesday. It’s not exactly a friendly visit: Although Russia’s relationship with Israel has significantly improved since the 1960s and 1970s — when the Soviet Union was the Arab world’s weapons supplier and the Arab-Israeli conflict was seen as just another front in the Cold War — Israel will always doubt Moscow’s intentions in the region. In those rare instances when Israeli defense officials or even ex-generals travel to Russia, they leave their laptops and mobile phones at home, fearing Russian attempts at surveillance and hacking.
But Israel and Russia have pressing business to discuss, which outweighs the mutual mistrust. Russia’s game-changing intervention in the Arab world — its decision to deploy dozens of Sukhoi jet fighters to northern Syria, along with several anti-aircraft systems and hundreds of soldiers — has taken the Middle East by surprise. After four-and-a-half years of bloodshed and stalemate, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is suddenly in a position that could allow him to secure the fate of his regime for a few more years. Moscow’s airstrikes against rebel forces could also threaten Israel’s strategic priorities in Syria, compromising the red lines it has established for the many players in the country’s conflict.
Israel was probably the first to notice the new Russian deployment — or at least to leak the information. An article, headlined “Russian jets in Syrian skies,” was published in the English-language version of Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in late August. During an urgent visit to Moscow on Sept. 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent any direct friction with the Israeli air force in the Syrian skies. Bogdanovsky’s visit is expected to take care of that: The Russian general discussed with his Israeli counterpart, Gen. Yair Golan, the establishment of a joint mechanism to “deconflict” military actions by the Israel Defense Forces and Russian units.
Perhaps because of these ongoing talks, Netanyahu has so far pulled his punches with regards to the Russian intervention. In an interview with CNN on Oct. 4, Netanyahu refused to echo U.S. and NATO criticism of the latest Russian military action in Syria. “I went to Moscow to make it clear that we should avoid a clash between Russian forces and Israeli forces,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to the days when … Russia and Israel were in an adversarial position.”
Netanyahu insisted that Israel will continue to take action “if anybody wants to use Syrian territory to transfer nuclear weapons to Hezbollah.” Israeli diplomatic sources, speaking on Israeli TV, implied that Netanyahu has achieved Russian consent for such steps.
But that doesn’t mean Israel is ambivalent toward Putin’s latest maneuver. Israel has established that there are two factors that will convince it to intervene in the Syrian war: when its sovereignty is compromised by attacks from within Syria or when it detects attempts to smuggle sophisticated weapons systems from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. While Israel has announced these principles, it has only publicly admitted to acting on the first — sometimes shooting back at Syrian army positions along the Golan Heights in response to fighting that “leaked” to the Israeli side.
The international media has reported more than 10 Israeli airstrikes against weapons depots and convoys close to Syria’s border with Lebanon since January 2013, but Israel never acknowledged responsibility for these strikes — though Netanyahu came close on CNN, saying, “We continue to do that,” in reference to Israeli action to stop weapons transfers. In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly last week, the Israeli prime minister also blamed Iran for initiating those transfers, naming specific weapons — the coast-to-sea Yakhont missiles, the surface-to-air SA-22 systems, and accurate surface-to-surface rockets — that had been sent to Hezbollah.
The Yakhont, perhaps more than any other weapon, concerns Israeli officials. With its almost 200-mile range and near-perfect precision, it puts at risk Israeli ships at sea and could probably paralyze two major Israeli ports, Haifa and Ashdod, in any future military conflict with Hezbollah. But previous Israeli airstrikes against Yakhont depots focused on the northwestern governorate of Latakia — in the exact area where Russia is now expanding an air base and two additional military compounds. It is doubtful whether Israel would risk more strikes in such proximity to Russian anti-aircraft systems and warplanes.
It is also hard to believe that the Israelis will notify the Russians in advance of such strikes. Putin will find it difficult to allow attacks against his allies, while Israel will be worried that the Russians would tip off Hezbollah or Assad’s forces before the attacks. Future strikes in the Damascus area will also become more complicated, because Russia might see such actions as threatening the Assad regime’s newly bolstered military position.
Israel has never really taken sides in the Syrian war. While it sometimes pays lip service to the terrible plight of the Syrian people, its actual policy, never pronounced, is quite similar to the Israeli position during most of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s: Israel secretly wishes success for both sides in killing its enemy. No possible outcome in the Syrian crisis is good for Israel: An Assad victory means a triumph for Iran and Hezbollah, while a victory for either the Islamic State or the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front will leave Damascus in the hands of a radical and extremely hostile regime. The creation of a “moderate” rebel regime in Syria remains mostly a figment of the imagination of some very optimistic U.S. officials.
The best scenario for Netanyahu would be an ongoing war of attrition, which keeps Israel’s enemies busy fighting each other instead of uniting against it. After more than four years of terrible internal war and devastating losses, the Syrian army is no longer any kind of match for Israeli forces. And two years ago, Assad’s chemical weapons were mostly dismantled, as a result of American pressure, allowing the Israeli government to stop supplying its citizens with gas masks for the first time in more than 20 years.
In Tel Aviv, Israeli military analysts have noted that the first Russian airstrikes in Syria seem much more aggressive than those of the U.S.-led coalition. They’ve also noticed, like their Western colleagues, that most of these strikes were aimed at moderate rebel groups, not at Islamic State targets. As long as the Russians help Assad stabilize his military lines, Israel will not mind. However, if the Russian-Iranian cooperation extends to a counterattack that allows the regime to regain control of significant areas, this would be seen by Israel as a troubling development.
The Iranian nuclear deal, and the intense disagreements it sparked between Israeli and U.S. leaders, looms large over this new challenge in Syria. It’s interesting that Netanyahu insisted on visiting Moscow last month, though Putin was scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama in New York a week later. This should be seen as a message to Washington: Although Netanyahu admitted last week that he would no longer fight the Iran nuclear agreement, he is also signaling that he does not trust Obama anymore to protect Israeli interests. From now on, when an urgent strategic problem develops, Netanyahu will try to deal with it himself.
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