Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brief trip to Russia on May 14 highlights the change that has recently taken place in Israel’s view of and policy toward the Syrian civil war. The change has been given further volume by the prominence of the Syria issue during Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s meeting with President Obama and by the dispatching of Russian ships in the direction of Syria. Israel clearly now finds itself in the midst of a far more complex regional and international game.
Netanyahu traveled to Russia in order to meet with Vladimir Putin and persuade the Russian leader to cancel the delivery of advanced SS 300 missiles to Syria. The results of Netanyahu’s mission have yet to be clarified but the very trip reflected Israel’s concern with the turn of events in the Syrian crisis and its more salient role as both a concerned stake holder and actor in the Syrian arena.
For more than two years Israel made a point of avoiding intervention in the Syrian civil war, but announced repeatedly that it will intervene should its own national security be directly affected. The IDF fired back several times when shells from across the cease fire line hit the Golan Heights. More importantly, Israel announced several times that it will interdict the transfer of sophisticated weapon systems – “game changers” – to terrorist organizations, be they Hizbullah or Jihadi elements. Specifically, Israel stated that this referred to ground to air missiles, long range sophisticated missiles, chemical weapons and shore to sea missiles. Last January the Israeli air force destroyed a shipment of ground to air missiles in the vicinity of Damascus that was poised for shipment across the border to Lebanon. At the time Israel refrained from taking credit or acknowledging the raid in order to reduce the pressure on Bashar al Asad to retaliate.
By April it became clear that the impact of the message conveyed by this pin prick was fading as a large shipment of sophisticated missiles was stockpiled near Damascus on its way to Lebanon. This time, the Israeli air force hit twice. The location and the loud explosions turned the raids into a public event. Israel kept silent but the Syrian regime, Iran and Hizbullah responded angrily and vowed to retaliate. If these three allied parties intend to continue with such transfers and Israel is determined to interdict them, a collision clearly seems inevitable.
At this time, Asad and Iran, for different reasons, are not interested in a full fledged confrontation with Israel. Asad knows that a war with Israel could end with the destruction of his air force and armored corps, which would tilt the military balance in favor of the rebels. In fact, over the weekend a senior Israeli official warned Asad through the New York Times that should he retaliate, Israel would topple him. Iran is afraid that a military confrontation in Syria and Lebanon could become a prelude to an attack on its own nuclear installations. And as the parties ponder their options, in steps Asad’s other external supporter, Putin, with a game changer of his own. It has been revealed that Russia is about to provide Syria with a shipment of advanced SS 300 missiles. Whether in Syria or in Lebanon, these missiles will have a significant impact on Israel’s ability to act and react.
Putin’s gambit is yet another in a series of developments that have affected the balance of forces and rules of the game in the Syrian arena during the past few weeks. To begin with, the regime’s forces have scored several achievements on the ground. They have successfully integrated fresh militiamen trained by Hizbullah into their own depleted ranks, have focused on selected targets and have been doing better. In the ebb and flow of this protracted civil war the tide could change, but at present the regime is doing better.
A sense of power and achievement must have emboldened Asad to authorize a large scale terrorist bombing across the Turkish border. The investigation has yet to be completed, but there is little doubt that it was a Syrian operation. Turkey’s response so far has been verbal, but Erdogan’s policy toward Syria is clearly encountering growing difficulties. Turkey has been hosting the Syrian political opposition and offering support across the border to the military opposition and has taken in a large number of refugees. But Turkey has clearly avoided direct military intervention. It thus failed to retaliate when the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet fighter, and it displayed a weak posture when it asked for Patriot missiles from Germany and the US to be deployed in Southern Turkey against potential Syrian missile attacks.
Erdogan’s policy in the Syrian crisis is criticized and there is agitation in Southern Turkey, where local residents – many of them Syrian Alawites whose region was annexed to Turkey on the eve of WW2 – resent the Sunni refugees from Syria. If, in the past, the Obama Administration believed that it could rely on Turkey as a regional power to carry its water in Syria, it now hosted an unhappy Erdogan. President Obama’s statement at the end of his meeting with Erdogan clearly reflected his continued determination not to be drawn into military involvement in the Syrian crisis; probably to Turkey’s chagrin.
In the US, the debate on Syria has picked up in recent weeks. The Obama Administration, red lines or no red lines, does not want to intervene militarily in Syria but is coming under increasing pressure at home and from allies abroad (British Prime Minister Cameron, for one) to intervene for humanitarian or geopolitical reasons or both. Under duress it is trying to revive, in concert with Russia, the quest for a political solution to the crisis. It is doubtful whether a Geneva Conference can provide a solution.
The Syrian opposition insists on Asad’s removal as part of any package and it is not certain that the Russians are willing to agree or to deliver the goods if they do. But like Asad, the Russians feel empowered in the Syrian context and have now put on the table a new card, the delivery of the SS 300 missiles. Whatever the arguments they use (the need to respect agreements, the financial importance of the deal), the fact is that it gives Russia new leverage. It is a potential game changer and a potential trigger for a military escalation involving Israel. When Putin met Netanyahu on Tuesday he must have pursued a specific Russian Israeli agenda, but he was clearly using the deal and the visit in order to upgrade Russia’s position in the larger international game surrounding the Syrian crisis. The message to Washington is that Russia will not comply with the loss of its influence in Syria, with a US takeover of a former Russian possession or with the loss of its naval base in Tatous.
These developments compound the Israeli calculus. Interdicting arms transfers to Hizbullah is now going to be a more difficult exercise, entailing risks in the regional arena and affecting the international power game. It is high time for Israel to reassess its Syrian policy and tread firmly but cautiously.