(photo credit: REUTERS)
Why precisely now, after four years of war and over 200,000 killed, have tens of thousands of Sunni and Christian Syrians decided to leave what was once Syria?
The answer is that after the nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the world powers in July, the Shi'ite axis of Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah became the favored side for the United States which signaled to the Syrians that Assad is not going anywhere and that the war was not going to end.
This altered political dynamic, that spurred the masses of Syrians to leave their country, is not necessarily bad news for Israel.
Clearly the fact that Europe is prepared to absorb the wave of refugees has encouraged more people to leave the battlefields in search of a better future. The images of the refugees that reach European shores show that among them are also Assad loyalists from the minority Alawite militia. But the nuclear agreement with Iran and the diplomatic momentum that came in its wake point to the continuation of the war and the Russian military buildup in the country should be viewed in this light as well.
The 28 Russian jets positioned in the air base in Latakia will not substantially change the situation on the battlefield and neither will the 11 attack helicopters nor the nine tanks and the hundreds of elite Russian forces that came with them.
They will help Assad to preserve his regime in one fifth of what was once Syria and maybe they will help with another victory in Idlib. But even if the Russians increase their presence and even if Iran sends hundreds of additional fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Assad will never return to rule over the Syria of the past.
The Russians and the Iranians will look east in order to block the ISIS threat from reaching Damascus. They will not reach the Golan Heights and the city of Daraa on the Jordanian border and so the main concern for Israel will be for the IAF to avoid Russian forces operating in the sky and on the ground. This is what was discussed between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week.
Even before the meeting between the Russian and Israeli leaders, the Russians did not hesitate to inform the Israelis about their military deployment in Syria. Israel requested that the meeting with the Russians be held at the highest levels with the countries two chiefs of staff, and even if the the relative strength of the parties can be described as those between 'a bear and bee,' the Russians were attentive and understood there was a joint interest to prevent misunderstandings.
Netanyahu, the chief of staff and the head of military intelligence explained to the Russians that Israel's interest lies in the area where the Russians deployed - in the area referred to in Israel right now as 'Alawiteistan,' the area under Assad's control. It can be assumed that during the meeting the parties reviewed past military strikes, attributed to Israel but that Israel has not publicly admitted to. Israel requested, and not for the first time, that Russia prevent arms transfers that Israel objects to, but experience of the past teaches that this does not really interest the Russians.
Netanyahu and the military officials told the Russians that there is a chance that Israel will have to act in Syria and that it was important to prevent unwanted confrontations. In the air, achieving this is relatively simple as any plane can broadcast an identifying signal to other planes in the sky. But what if an Israeli jet comes on to the radar of a Russian anti-aircraft missile battery? For this possibility it was decided that the deputy chiefs of staff would meet in around a week to develop a coordination mechanism.
Memories of the Yom Kippur War
Many air forces are operating in Syria but almost all of them are concentrated in the area of the country controlled by Islamic State. None of the rebel groups, including ISIS is operating planes, so a jet seen in the skies above Damascus or Latakia will either belong to Assad's army or to the Israel Air Force. The Israelis asked Putin to prevent a situation where Russian anti-aircraft guns threaten an Israeli plane which would necessitate either an evasive maneuver or worse an attack.
The Middle East is returning to the days of the Cold War but with one vital difference: Now there is only one superpower. The US under President Barack Obama is not really trying to be a regional player and has turned it over to the bear from Moscow, Putin, who knows how to recognize opportunities, is fast to establish facts on the ground and will operate now to preserve his holdings: two ports in the Mediterranean and an airbase for it to use.
What will be the consequences of a regional Sunni-Shi'ite war? The Israeli intelligence community is split on this question. Some believe that the nuclear deal with Iran and the Russian involvement in Syria will stabilize the Shi'ites and will give them an advantage that will allow them to dictate the regional agenda in the next few years. Others believe that Iran and Russia's bolstered alliance with Assad will only draw out the war, and will delay Assad's fall for many years. Thus, these developments are not necessarily bad for Israel.
Every other alternative seems much worse for Israel: the fall of Damascus to the hands of Islamic State or a contiguous territory linking ISIS in eastern Syria with its supporters in the southern Golan Heights. These scenarios would threaten Israel's borders and would would drag us into an unwanted altercation in Syria.
If Israel's interest in the war in Syria can be summarized in brief, it would be: That it should never end. No one will say this publicly, but the continuation of the fighting in Syria as long as there is a recognized authority in Damascus, allows Israel to stay out of the swamp and distance itself from the swarms of mosquitoes that are buzzing in it.
Forty-two years have passed since a small number of Israeli soldiers stood opposite the many Syrian tanks that invaded the Golan Heights. These soldiers will likely be the last to see such scenes of invasion. The trauma that awakens every Yom Kippur in an entire generation that experienced that terrible war is also therefore a source of comfort.
Until 1973, Israel won battle after battle but it did not succeed to uproot its enemies' desire to continue fighting. The victory of the Yom Kippur War despite, but maybe because of, its high cost caused Israel's neighbors to understand that Israel cannot be defeated on the battlefield. This realization led then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to peace and the Syria of the Assads to a policy of caution and non-engagement.
It seems as if we will forever discuss the omissions and the lessons of the war that led to the death of 2,600 Israeli fighters. The wars between the generals and the writings on the Agranat Commission Report set up to investigate the failings of the war will continue to fill the weekend supplements of the newspapers. But from a distance of 42 years we can look back on the war and see a resounding success: a decisive victory on the battlefield despite our being threatened at the start of the war and a victory in the long run that echoes to this day - that this horrible war turned Israel into an undeniable fact in the Middle East.
Since October 6, 1973 no state or organization has dared or believed that it can challenge Israel's existence. It's true that Israel is still busy with security challenges, but it also enjoys peace on two of its longest borders and it is free from existential threats - an enormous achievement obtained by the blood of the heroes who fell in the Yom Kippur War.