How Russia's military presence in Syria complicates Israeli affairs

Israel’s defense establishment quietly preparing for an expanded presence of the Iranian-led axis in southern Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
From Israel’s perspective, there are two emerging consequences of Russia’s aerial intervention in Syria, and neither of them is particularly good.
The first is that Russia’s allies on the ground in Syria, who happen to be Israel’s bitter enemies, will now expand their troublesome presence near the Israeli border.
Specifically, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its transnational terrorist unit the Quds Force, Hezbollah forces and Assad military units are all benefiting from Russia’s air war in Syria, and their enhanced presence on Israel’s border will soon be a fact on the ground.
The village of Khader on Syria’s side of the Golan Heights was, until recently, the only Assad regime stronghold left standing near the Israeli border.
But in recent weeks, since Russia began providing air support to Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces battling Sunni organizations, the Assad regime has grown bolder. It has begun to take back positions it previously lost on the Syrian Golan Heights. Wherever the Assad regime controls turf, its Iranian and Hezbollah allies tend to pour in, especially in regions that can be used to plot cross-border rocket, missile and bomb attacks or infiltration raids on Israel.
The second consequence of Russia’s operations in Syria is that it complicates Israel’s own extensive intelligence efforts and, according to international reports, covert strike sorties over Syria.
Russian jets are now flying in Syria’s deep south, in Deraa, dropping munitions, and putting the Israel Air Force on the highest alert, despite the deconfliction mechanism created by the IDF and Russian Armed Forces in recent weeks.
As Brig.-Gen. (res.) Abraham Assael, CEO of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya, told The Jerusalem Post recently, human error could undermine the deconfliction mechanism with a fair amount of ease.
Russian jets operating so close to the Israeli border may well come as a surprise to Israel, which initially believed that the Russian planes would provide air coverage in northeast and northwest Syria.
All of this means that the IDF’s Northern Command, Military Intelligence and IAF must quietly recalibrate their preparations on this highly tense front.
The preparations will presumably include protocols for dealing with deliberate proxy attacks by the emboldened Iran-led axis in Syria, and accidental run-ins with the Russian Air Force, which, without sufficient caution, could entail grave and even global unintended consequences.
With respect to the first threat – that of renewed Iranian-orchestrated terrorism from Syria – the Post learned this week that the Mount Hermon territorial brigade, which faces the village of Khader, has been training to respond to a “combined terrorist attack” that could involve border bombs, rockets, an attempted kidnapping of soldiers, and antitank missile fire.
“There is someone who gets up every morning and asks, ‘How can I carry out an attack on Israel?’ Most of the time, they run into great difficulties,” a senior source from the brigade said.
The source confirmed that these hostile elements are being orchestrated by the Iranian-led radical axis.
No less important, however, these same elements are primarily bogged down in unending battles with Sunni militias that continue to surround them.
Opening a second front with Israel seems a most unwise option for them at this time. That calculation, combined with Israel’s robust responses to previous attempts to plot attacks on it, is keeping the Syrian border quiet – for now.
According to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Russia’s increased deployment in Syria, and Iran and Hezbollah’s tightening grip on areas just north of the Israel-Syria border, may soon change regional realities irrevocably.”
In a paper he published at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, where he is a senior fellow, Amidror also said that “more than ever, Israel must remain determined in its efforts to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weapons.”
If international reports are to be believed, Israel has no intention of giving up its covert strikes against Iranian and Syrian weapons trafficking to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
AT THE start of the week, international media reports claimed Israeli aircraft carried out air strikes in Syrian airspace, reportedly attacking numerous Hezbollah targets in the Qalamoun mountain region near the Lebanese border, possibly to intercept a weapons convoy to Lebanon.
If true, the reports indicate that Israel has no intention of standing down on the enforcement of its redline against arms trafficking to Hezbollah, irrespective of the Russian air presence in the neighborhood.
Whether by coincidence or not, days after the reported strikes, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reaffirmed his redlines on Syria, saying Israel will respond with zero tolerance to cross-border artillery fire, weapons smuggling to terrorists, and the distribution of chemical weapons to terrorists.
“Those who cross the redlines will be hit,” Ya’alon warned.
In his paper, Amidror linked the Russian air campaign to the Iranian nuclear deal, which he said “lent the Islamic republic the international legitimacy it craves. Moreover, this move represents a de facto regional alliance between Tehran and Moscow, even if neither of them has declared as much publicly.”
The alliance raises several crucial questions, Amidror said, not least of which are: “What does the Russian involvement mean for Israel’s ability to undermine Iran and Hezbollah’s force-building efforts? And how far would Iran go to leverage its ties with Russia and paint Israel into a corner?” “Moreover, given the complexities created by the Russian presence just north of the border, how much of Iran and Hezbollah’s antics would Israel be willing to tolerate before it retaliates? What would Russia do opposite a forceful Israeli response, should the situation call for one? Would Russia refrain from weighing in on an aggressive Israeli response in an area it is seemingly responsible for? Could it really remain unfazed?” Amidror asked.
It is safe to assume that precisely the same questions are being asked in the Defense Ministry and in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
For now, the only apparent answer is the one offered by Amidror, who said, “These questions would have to stand the test of reality before they can be answered.”