In recent weeks Israel has increased efforts to convey messages to the Assad regime via Russia detailing its vital security interests, including an outline of its ‘red lines.’
These efforts are taking place against the backdrop of military defeats of the Islamic State in the killing fields of Iraq and Syria.
Most military experts are well aware that concerted international efforts will soon bear fruit, despite the contradictory interests of various warring parties.
Israeli decision-makers at both the military and government echelons know very well that a new era – in which the shape of a future Syria will be determined – is imminent. It is also clear that Syria will not return to be a “normal” state, as it was before civil war broke out six years ago.
Bashar al-Assad: still in power, though diminished
Israel fears that when Assad again consolidates his grip on power it will lead to the deployment of Iranian, Hezbollah or other Shi’ite militias along the Golan Heights border. That possibility is now the most serious concern on the minds of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and his General Staff, even more than the transfer – from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon – of long-range, precise missiles, which has occasionally triggered Israeli air strikes inside Syria.
As a result, Israel is trying to advance its agenda and influence the various parties and processes within the international community, in order to reach a post-war agreement that will regulate the situation in Syria.
The main actors in efforts to reach an agreement are Russia, the USA, Turkey and even some Arab nations such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – all of which Israel hopes to successfully reach with its concerns and red lines.
Various ideas have been raised in recent consultations among the military, the prime minister and the defense minister. One, is a promise to reduce involvement in Syria – with actions such as the recent air strikes and many others, some of which have been officially admitted – in return for a Syrian commitment to keep its Shi’ite-Iranian allies from the border.
If Israel manages to reach a tacit understanding along these lines there is reason that the Syrian army will be welcome.
King-maker, dictator-saver: Vladimir Putin
It’s worth mentioning that the Syrian Army has the right to deploy along the border, according to the Agreement on Disengagement reached in 1974, the year after the Yom Kippur War. However, most of those positions have now been taken over by rebels forces in the course of the current war. Today, most of the border is controlled by al-Qaida, ISIS and so-called “moderate” rebels. The only place where remnants of the Assad army are currently found is near Mount Hermon in the North.
It is no secret that the major force exerting the biggest influence on Damascus is Russia, which practically saved the regime from collapse by deploying its military – mainly its air force – 18 months ago.
The keys to an agreement are in Moscow, which explains why Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin five times in the last a year-and-a-half and spoken by phone with him at least two dozen times.
In one conversation between the two leaders and their teams, Netanyahu and Israeli military officials raised the idea of some sort of non-aggression pact with Assad.
Putin showed interest in the idea, according to some sources, saying that he understood the concerns and vital security interests of Israel. He also reportedly was clear in reiterating that all foreign armies, including Iran and Hezbollah, will leave Syria once the war is over. But, he said, his No. 1 priority at that moment was to defeat ISIS and end the war with an agreement.
April 5, 2017
[Six years after the beginning of the bloody, horrendous civil war in Syria, some analysts feel we are seeing the “end game” unfold. Russia’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime is part of the picture, but so are the concerns of Syria’s southwestern neighbor, Israel. Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israel’s intelligence community, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars wrote this analysis for The Jerusalem Post.]
Contradictory reports, most of them unconfirmed and unofficial, have emerged in recent days regarding Israeli-Russian understandings over the war in Syria. The reports follow Jerusalem’s admission that its warplanes last Friday attacked missiles being transfered via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Putin and Netanyahu Meet Often, but Does Fear Reign?
The rare admission, which was contrary to the traditional Israeli policy of ambiguity, of neither confirming nor denying past strikes, triggered a chain of events in which, just hours after the attack, Israel’s ambassador in Moscow was urgently summoned to Russia’s Foreign Ministry and asked to provide explanations.
Media reports suggested that President Vladimir Putin, who is the sponsor and savior of the Syrian regime, expressed anger, while Syria’s ruler, Bashar Assad, boasted to Russian lawmakers that Putin had promised to rein in Israel. Israeli commentators wrote that the operational freedom hitherto enjoyed by the Israel Air Force is over.
Judging from statements by Israeli leaders and military commanders over the past two days, it seems they are not seriously worried.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a state visit to China, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot remained undeterred, delivering, more or less, the same message to the effect that Israel will continue pursuing its national security interests and defend its red lines in Syria.
Israeli policy is non-interventionist, with three exceptions. One is that the IDF retaliates from air and land whenever shells and rockets hit on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, regardless of whether it was targeted intentionally.
Another is the establishment of terrorist networks near the Israeli border; attempts to do so have resulted in the assassination of Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah commanders.
The third and most important exception is the occasional bombing, without admission, of convoys carrying and warehouses storing long-range, accurate missiles sent from Iran via Syria that are destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since 2013, some 20 such incidents have been recorded by the media based on Syria’s official statements and rare Israeli claims of responsibility.
Since Moscow deployed its forces in Syria 18 months ago, Israel added another factor to the equation; it reached understandings with Russia in order to know each other’s interests and avoid mistakes and even dog fights between their two air forces. These understandings are formulated in the creation of direct lines of communication between intelligence and air forces of the two countries, and are known as a “deconflicting mechanism.”
The unrattled reaction by top political and military brass indicate that they know better, especially Liberman, who is considered to be close to and have a good understanding of the Putin administration. It is very likely that Putin is playing a two-sided game – he understands the Israeli concerns and interests, but when Israel confirms that it has attacked Syria, he has no choice but to publicly denounce it.
However, on top of the understandings with Russia and the red lines, there is now one more important Israeli interest – to prevent the deployment of Hezbollah or Iraqi-Shi’ite militias sponsored and guided by Iranian officers near the Israel-Syria border on the Golan Heights.
The recent success of the Assad regime and expected defeat of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria make this scenario more and more possible. Iran and Hezbollah hope to be positioned on the border and thus threaten to open a second front alongside Lebanon against Israel in case of a future war.
Israel is committed to stop this, either by reaching another understanding with Putin, and through him influencing Assad, Iran and Hezbollah in that direction, or, as a last resort, by force.
March 22, 2017
[This is based on an article for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the history of Israel’s intelligence and security agencies — Spies Against Armageddon.]
We should not ignore — or underestimate — the warnings of the Syrian Government and its army’s capability to respond to Thursday night’s attack, which Syria attributed to Israel. The spokesperson for the Syrian Army claimed that Israeli planes flying near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) in northern Israel fired missiles that hit the Mezzah military airport, located near Damascus. The airport is approximately five kilometers from Basher Assad’s presidential palace. Opposition leaders claim that there were more targets, in addition to the airport.
This is not the first time that the Syrian Army and Assad’s government have blamed Israel for attacks in Syrian territory, threatening retaliation. Until now, the threats have been empty threats.
It is clear that Assad does not want to open a new front with Israel. Just recently, with the help of Russian fighter jets, Hezbollah forces alongside Iranian Shi’ite ground forces and the Syrian army were able to defeat rebel forces and regain territory. These successes raised the Syrian army’s morale, upping their confidence. In their next conflict or the one after, Syrian leadership may develop “Crying Wolf” syndrome. Strike after strike and in the end, Assad may decide to respond.
public CIA map of Syria
Another possibility is for Assad to use a proxy to attack, using Palestinians or Hezbollah on the Golan Heights border in order to rattle Israel. This is something that already happened two years ago when Iranian forces, together with Hezbollah, Palestinians and pro-Syrian Druze created cells which attacked Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.
According to foreign reports, Israel managed to squash the cells by assassination, which included Jihad Mughniyah, whose father, Imad Mughniyah (Hezbollah’s “defense minister”), was assassinated in a joint Mossad and CIA operation in 2008. Druze terrorist Samir Kontar was also killed.
The Israeli security establishment does not belittle threats from Syria, taking into account a reaction from Damascus, though the probability of an attack is currently low.
According to foreign reports, Israel has attacked Syria ten to fifteen times in recent years, eliminating sophisticated weaponry such as air defense systems, navigation and guided systems as well as long-distance missiles — all of which were supplied from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah.
However, what is especially interesting is Russia’s silence. A spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry has in the past warned the United States and coalition forces not to attack the Syrian regime. Yet Russia has remained silent on the alleged Israeli attack.
If Russia, Assad’s biggest supporter, was against Israeli attacks and warned against them, it would have limited Israel’s freedom of action.
This leads us to believe that there is probably a quiet understanding between Jerusalem and Moscow. Beyond “de-conflicting,” or preventing the two militaries from shooting at each other, the full nature of the agreement remains unknown.
The deal was reached in meetings involving Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel — with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military chiefs. It seems as though Israel enjoys freedom of movement in firing missiles into Syria.
It is possible to conclude that Russia understands that Israel’s interests are solely to prevent arms transfers of sophisticated weapons from reaching Hezbollah. They also know Israel’s red line. Israel has no interest in entering Syria’s civil war, not by supporting the rebels or by acting against the regime.
It seems that so long as Russia continues to accept these principles, Israel will continue to act from time to time with accurate intelligence.
January 15, 2017
[This post is based on an article written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, for the website Middle East Eye, after an attack on a military airfield near Syria’s capital, Damascus. As usual, Israel did not confirm that its forces carried out the attack. It was believed to be aimed at preventing transfer of advanced arms to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim militia in Lebanon that is controlled by Iran and closely allied with Syria’s Assad regime.]
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a meeting of European Union envoys that his country was “trying to prevent the smuggling of sophisticated weapons, military equipment and weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hezbollah.”
public CIA map of Syria
A strike against President Bashar Assad’s military can be indirectly perceived as an assault or humiliation of Russia, which is behind the regime. Indeed, it was reported that after the attack Russia asked Israel for a clarification of what it was up to.
Soon after Russia deployed its forces in Syria in spring-summer 2015, Israel was nervous and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to Moscow to appease Putin.
In the meeting and, in subsequent ones, the two sides established a special red line link for “deconflicting”, to avoid unintended clashes between the two sides.
Since then, Netanyahu has travelled three more times in the past year to Moscow for further talks with Putin. Subsequently, senior IDF and IAF officers met with their Russian counterparts to define the rules of the game over Syrian airspace.
Despite these arrangements, it is very unlikely that Israel informed Russia ahead of attacks on November 28 and December 7. Nations don’t do that, even with their friends, because it may very well jeopardise an operation and risk lives.
Bearing these circumstances and complications in mind, one has to reach the conclusion that the targets attacked inside Syria were very important to Israel and worth risking the ramifications.
One can also assume that the intelligence was excellent and that there was operational feasibility. Another conclusion which can be drawn from the incidents is that maybe Israel developed such sophisticated measures that its planes were not detected or even “blinded” by the Russian radars.
In the past, Netanyahu, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and his successor Avigdor Lieberman have repeatedly said that Israel has no intentions of getting involved in the civil war, but would religiously defend its national interests.
They include retaliation for, intentional or not, every violation of Israeli sovereignty and prevention of shipments of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel is mainly concerned about the Yakhont land-sea cruise missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and radars and components which will increase the accuracy of Hezbollah ground-to-ground missiles, capable of hitting almost every strategic or military site in Israel including the nuclear reactor in Dimona, IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, power stations and air fields.
Most probably these were the targets in the last Israeli strike in Syria, with the additional fine tuning by Lieberman that Israel is also concerned about transfers of weapons of mass destruction to Hezbollah.
It is, however, important to stress that Israel is also very careful to keep from violating Lebanese sovereignty. In the past – after an IAF strike on Lebanese soil – Hezbollah has threatened to retaliate. For the Shia Lebanese movement, Israeli strikes on Syrian soil are tolerable, but not in Lebanon.
The Assad regime promised in the past to retaliate for the violation by Israel of its airspace and sovereignty. But IDF strategists and planners know that these are empty threats. Assad can’t allow himself – and is actually incapable – of opening another front, especially one with the mighty Israeli military.
But they also know that there is a limit to what they can inflict upon Damascus. Not because of Assad but because of his patron – Putin.
There are two possibilities to explain the increased number of Israeli attacks in the last two weeks. One is that Israel is brazenly challenging Russia and playing a game of chicken with Putin.
But given Lieberman’s comments about WMD, it is more likely that Russia is playing a double game. It defends the Assad regime, but also understands the vital Israeli national interests and turns a blind eye when Israel takes action to defends these interests.
The operational military freedom which Israel has enjoyed to do whatever it likes in Syria since the civil war broke out nearly six years ago is narrowing. Israeli military and government know very well that Putin’s patience is running out.
December 17, 2016