Any time Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appears in public flanked by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot there is, invariably, something in the air; and, indeed, Israeli jets just hours prior to their meeting on Monday reportedly struck a Syrian chemical weapons production facility.
That a high-level Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Eizenkot's counterpart Valery Gerasimov made an unannounced visit to Jerusalem to join the Israeli trio further reinforces the gravity of the issue at hand: namely, Iran's ongoing efforts to establish a permanent military foothold in Syria, from where it could open up another front along Israel's borders—in addition to mobilizing Hizbullah in Lebanon as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip—in a future war with the Jewish state.
Israel and Russia have closely coordinated their operations in Syria since Moscow intervened in the conflict in September 2015. Russian air power in support of the Syrian army and its allies on the ground is the primary reason President Bashar al-Assad was able to turn the tide of war in his favor and is now on the cusp of retaking all the of the southern territories held by rebels for the better part of a decade. This development comes after the regime consolidated control over the capital and its strategic surroundings, essentially leaving only regions in the northwest—under Turkish control—and east of the Euphrates—where U.S.
forces are backing Kurdish SDF fighters—out of Assad's orbit.
This fragile, albeit relatively steady, equilibrium appears to be the new reality in Syria, at least for the foreseeable future and in the absence of a comprehensive agreement between competing powers, one that Moscow is intent on forging with a view to winding down the seven-year conflict.
Having reasserted himself as a dominant player in the Middle East, while reinforcing Russia's military assets principally in Latakia, Russian President Vladimir Putin's current aim is to restore a modicum of stability to Syria; this, in order to secure the Kremlin's geopolitical gains and to begin the phase of reconstructing the country, a process in which Moscow will play a central role, likely to the tune of multi-billion dollar contracts.
Presently, the largest obstacle to the realization of this goal is Israel, which in the past few years has conducted well over one hundred cross-border aerial operations to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hizbullah. The Israeli army is targeting either Iranian- supervised bases in Syria that house Shiite fighters, or military facilities capable of producing medium- to long-range missiles.
While Tehran has only intermittently responded—most notably in February, when an armed drone was flown into Israeli air space and, in May, when the Revolutionary Guard Corps launched a salvo of nearly two dozen rockets towards the Jewish state—each attack prompted increasingly severe Israeli retaliations carrying the potential to spark a full-blown conflagration.
Such an eventuality would not only destabilize Syria, and the Middle East in general, but also perhaps lead to Israel's overthrow of the Assad regime, thereby seriously jeopardizing Moscow's long-term influence in the country.
Hence, the repeated trips to Moscow by Netanyahu to meet with Putin, the latest having occurred on July 11; the near-daily communications between high-ranking Israeli military officials and their Russian counterparts; and, on Monday, the reciprocal visit led by Lavrov, during which he reportedly was presented with an intelligence map depicting Iran's entrenchment throughout Syria.
While Israel has long maintained that Iranian forces must ultimately vacate Syria completely, Jerusalem recently appeared to walk back its position, with officials stressing the immediate need to expel all Tehran-aligned fighters from the border region.
As such, many eyebrows were raised when news surfaced that Netanyahu et al. rejected out-of-hand a purported offer by Lavrov & Co. to prevent these elements, including members of Hizbullah, from operating within 100 km. (60 miles) of the Israeli Golan Heights.
The Israeli rejection occurred within the framework of reinstituting the 1974 Israel-Syria Separation of Forces Agreement that created a demilitarized buffer zone between the two countries, and within the broader context of Jerusalem maintaining a green-light from Moscow to continue targeting Iranian assets in Syria.
The revelation has led many to ponder whether Israel is asking for too much and, if not, whether Russia, even if it wanted to, is in a position to satisfy these the demands.
According to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaacov Amidror, previously the chairman of Israel's National Security Council and close adviser to Netanyahu, "the logic of the numbers is very clear.
Assuming the Iranians agree to the 100 km. [no-go zone], they will build a base 105 km.
away that can launch missiles into Israel.
"Even at this distance," he elaborated to The Media Line, "the Iranians have rockets that can strike Tel Aviv, [such as the Fateh-110 with a range of 300km]. From Israel's point of view, it is impossible to allow the Iranians to build another such war machine. And if the Russians cannot deliver then Israel will do what it has to on its own through force." Amidror, a senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, therefore believes that for Israel initiating a conflict now is preferable than allowing the Islamic Republic to build up its military capability in Syria on par with that of Hizbullah's in Lebanon.
"There will be Iranians here and there in Syria and this is not a problem. The issue is the long-range missiles, anti-aircraft systems, drones, etc.—anything that can either threaten Israel directly or prevent its freedom of action. Also, the number of Shiites that Iran has brought into Syria from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is larger than what Islamic State had fighting on its behalf. It completely shifts the balance of power in the country and Israel cannot allow this." Brig.-Gen. Hanan Gefen, former commander of the renowned Unit 8200 of the Israeli army's Military Intelligence division, views the purported Russian proposal in shades of grey. "The agreement from the Iranian perspective is a major setback, as in the past there was discussion of only a 40km. buffer zone. According to the new terms, they will not even be allowed to be in Damascus."
On the flip side, he expounded to The Media Line, "from Israel's point of view it is a major achievement, as it shows that [Jerusalem] has gained greater standing [vis-à-vis] Syria and has the support of superpowers Russia and the United States." Gefen believes that Israel should therefore accept the plan, with one major caveat: It should understand that the situation in Syria remains fluid, while reserving the right to enforce its longstanding red lines. "Israel can still announce that any attempt by the Iranians to transfer weapons to Hizbullah will not be tolerated, and anyways this [deal] can also represent a temporary, intermediary phase."
In the interim, Gefen highlighted Jerusalem's keen ability to monitor Tehran's activities. "The Iranians are very visible in Syria and are hated by much of the population. If they try to hide within Assad's army, Israel will quickly know about it. There is a lot of information within the Syrian media and social platforms, especially among the opposition, and it is likely that Israel gathers up to 80 percent of its intelligence this way. Overall, we have an excellent understanding of where the Iranians are, their movements, their operations and their weaponry."
While every military expert that spoke to The Media Line offered varying assessments, all agreed on one point; namely, that Israel cannot under any circumstances permit the "Lebanonization" of Syria by arch-foe Iran.
Moreover, they near-uniformly stressed that this is the prevailing, if not uncompromising but necessary, position not only of Netanyahu, but of the entire Israeli military establishment.
As such, it is hard to envision a totally peaceful resolution to the Israel-Iran stand-off in Syria—a reality the Russians may only now be grasping cannot be fundamentally altered by 100 kilometers of space.
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