- CAROLINE GLICK - JULY 31, 2021 - Caroline Glick -
Thursday it was reported that the IDF is planning to change its tactics in Syria and will base its operations against Iranian targets in the area on long-range standoff munitions rather than air strikes. Obviously, the move will downgrade Israel’s operational prowess. The report of Israel’s new policy of restraint followed the big story of the week: Russia’s announcement that it assisted the Syrians in intercepting four missiles shot by IAF F-16s at targets in Syria for the first time. Russia’s statement came in tandem with its announcement that it is abrogating its 2015 agreement with Israel to coordinate and deconflict Israel’s military operations in Syria from Russian forces in the country.
Russia’s decision is a major strategic blow.
The agreement in question was initiated almost immediately after Russian military forces first deployed to Syria in September 2015. Immediately after the Russians began setting up shop in Israel’s hostile neighbor to the north, then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The purpose of his sudden trip, and a series of follow-on meetings between the two leaders in the ensuing months, was to reach an accord that would enable the IDF to maintain its operational freedom against Iranian targets in Syria without getting into a military conflict with the Russian forces who deployed to Syria to assist the Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah masters in their war of annihilation against Assad’s opponents and much of the population of Syria.
Netanyahu’s goal seemed like an impossible dream. And yet, stunningly, he achieved it. Moreover, the understandings Netanyahu reached with Putin were scrupulously respected by both sides with few exceptions until Russia abrogated it this week.
To get a sense of just how bad Russia’s sudden about face is for Israel, it’s important to remember what jolted Netanyahu into action six years ago.
When Russian forces landed in Syria, the various rebel armies fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and partners in Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were gaining the upper hand in large swathes of Syria. In desperation, Assad approached Putin with a deal. In exchange for Russia serving as his air force, Assad would give Russia a permanent base at the port of Latakia, control over several air bases, and control over the Conoco oil fields in Eastern Syria, (which were then and still today remain under U.S. military control).
In 2015, Israel was carrying out an undeclared campaign in Syria to block Iran from transporting precision-guided missiles and drones across Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The threat such weapons in the hands of Hezbollah poses to Israel is potentially existential. Iran has transferred precision-guided drones and missiles to its proxy forces in Yemen and Iraq and both have used them to conduct strategic assaults on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. A Houthi drone strike in 2019 disabled half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production capabilities. Placing such weapons in Hezbollah’s hands would put targets on all of Israel’s population centers, its military bases, key infrastructure and industrial hubs.
The threat the sudden appearance of Russian forces in Syria on the side of Iran, Hezbollah and Assad posed to Israel’s security interests was obvious. If Russia decided to actively oppose Israel’s military strikes in Syrian territory, Israel would be compelled to choose between two options. It could unilaterally stand down to avoid direct confrontation with the Russia. If it chose this option, it would end its air assaults against Iranian missile shipments to Hezbollah and find itself under a strategic threat from Hezbollah that it would be compelled to go to war to defeat. In such a war, Russia could be expected to actively assist Hezbollah’s war effort.
In other words, if Israel stood down in Syria to avoid a confrontation with Russia, it would be compelled to confront Russia on much more dangerous battlefield in Lebanon.
The second scenario Israel was facing was also bad. In this one, Israel would continue to strike Iranian arms shipments in Syria, without coordinating those strikes with Russia and inevitably find itself in a direct conflict with the Russians, similar to the one it found itself in in the 1982 Lebanon War. In that war, Israel destroyed Russia’s anti-aircraft systems and established its air superiority in the Middle East for a generation. In 2015, Israel might have repeated the achievement. Or it might have discovered that it was incapable of evading Russia’s new anti-aircraft surface to air missile systems, and lost its air superiority. Either way, the price of discovering whose platforms worked better would be the destruction of Israel’s bilateral relations with Russia.
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