Putin’s red line in Syria is not an invitation for Israel to play Russian roulette with Assad

Martin Jay
Martin Jay is an award winning British journalist now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
Putin’s red line in Syria is not an invitation for Israel to play Russian roulette with Assad
What is Israel’s real role in the war in Syria? Can we really believe that it doesn’t want to get involved in the conflict? And how much longer can Israel be Washington’s strong arm in the region while sustaining good relations with Russia?

A minor incident took place last week in Syria which few in Washington and London even noticed, but which drew the attention of geopolitical nerds who observe the daily developments in Damascus. Israel conducted an air attack on what it claims was a movement of Hezbollah missiles. In itself, it was hardly remarkable and has happened in the past. In fact, Israel’s attacks have generally been on Hezbollah commanders or the transportation of ordinance.

What made this attack remarkable was the response of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Not only did he launch a ballistic missile into Israel, but quickly stated to the media that no more such attacks would be tolerated. The last time, in fact, that Assad issued such stern warnings to Israel was over the Golan Heights in 2013, when he threatened the Israelis with the use of Russian weapons. 

But now the threat is wider and throws into question both how far Russia will go in supporting Assad, but also to what extent Israel is prepared to risk ruining its own relations with Moscow.

This time, the Syrian president is speaking with a new gusto, almost as though he has the full military support of Russia behind him. Indeed, although he also hinted in reports that he wanted Moscow to support any return fire in the future, the rhetoric corresponds entirely with what Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned regional foes in 2015, when Russia entered Syria with its own forces.

Israel’s return threat via the media from Foreign Minister Lieberman to entirely wipe out Syria’s anti-aircraft arsenal slightly shook the cordial working relationship they enjoy with Moscow. This immediately resulted in the Israeli ambassador in Moscow being summoned to explain himself, since a 2015 deal was struck, whereby Israel would stay out of the way of Assad and his allies in the conflict.

The incident has added more momentum to the much talked-of quandary that Israel is currently in – with the new US administration settling in and a new dynamic in the war unfolding, many are asking how long Israel can continue to straddle two opposing geopolitical agendas.

No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides,” writes Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, “the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.”

In other words, ‘something’s got to give.’

It’s as though Israel, Syria, and Russia are all now entering a new phase of both recalibrating their relations and roles with one another, but also testing the water to see who backs down when the heat gets turned up. Russia has not officially said it will back Assad if he were to start firing at Israeli jets, but the Syrian president clearly thinks it will. But that is not the most poignant question, but more whether Assad’s strained resources on the battlefield could continue to hold the ground in Syria if it were to engage in a new campaign against Israel.

Netanyahu is banking on Assad not being so stupid as to lay himself vulnerable to hardcore Sunni extremist groups taking advantage of his troops being preoccupied with Israel, who will likely take back key ground.

And yet, Israel is also pushing its luck in threatening to attack Assad for two reasons: firstly, it would be stretching its military resources, and the temptation from Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon to strike it might be too much to contain; secondly, Israel simply cannot afford to anger Russia and become its enemy.

It needs a Russian air campaign against its fighters as much as it needs a hole in the head.

I would argue, though, that Putin may well test how far he can go with Israel, who is not really in a position to fight either Russia or its allies Hezbollah, or Iran. He may well use the Syrian Israeli border as a new red line, as was recently suggested by Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama.

If we are to believe the Syrian ambassador to the UN, who recently warned that his government’s response to the Israeli strikes marks a new phase of the conflict, where Israeli attacks would merit further responses, then the current diplomatic apparatus is balancing on a knife edge.

Equally, if we are also to believe one of Lebanon’s leading academics, Dr. Jamal Wakim, who claims that Israel is preparing for a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, then Russia telling Israel that it no longer has ‘free reign’ in Syrian airspace is a milestone which all sides should observe as a lucid warning. If Syria can move the latest generation surface-to-air rockets across the country into Lebanon without fear of an Israeli airstrike, then Russia is settling doubts once and for all about how committed it is to Syria and its allies in any regional dispute.

But Israel often punches above its weight in regional clashes, and the bravado chest-beating of some of its supporters is breath taking. “Israel reserves the right to respond” argued US academic Dan Arbell, on RT’s ‘CrossTalk’ show.

Yet, this argument lacks gravitas when put into context, and loses its edge when followed by the standard response from Israeli apologists who struggle to justify its military actions all in the name of “defending” its sovereignty: “Israel is the only country in the region which is a democracy.” This was then matched by claims that Israel is not involved in the war and sides with no particular group, despite scores of accounts from media of Israeli hospitals taking care of extremists from cabals of Al-Qaeda as well as Free Syrian Army soldiers. Indeed, even Israeli media itself admits that its own country “was indeed knowingly treating members of al-Nusra” in hospitals close to the Syrian border, with an average medical bill of $15,000 for each fighter. Not quite “not involved.”

Twice before in Lebanon, Israel failed in its military objectives and, in particular, in 2006 massively underestimated the dynamics of Hezbollah, which is at the heart of this wrangle. And being the “only democracy” doesn’t really stand up when you see how poorer, more backward countries in the region rely on stirring up nationalism just for leaders to win elections – in Israel’s case preparing for a third war with Hezbollah in Lebanon – which we can expect from Prime Minister Netanyahu. If, that is, he is still in office when he calls an early election to dampen negative publicity over looming corruption charges – one of which includes bribing a media outlet to give him positive coverage.

And so, Israel may well have fighting talk, but many of its arguments can’t always be taken seriously, and when they can, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Israel should see the warning signs and not stir the Russian bear. If it can keep its end of the ‘don’t get in my way’ deal that Israel struck in 2015 with Russia (in Syria), then perhaps that same principle can apply when Israel attacks Lebanon, without interference from Russia.

For the moment, Israel has been given a clear warning from Russia and Assad in Syria about the air strikes – one which it will probably heed, as a provocation of a war now with Assad might be hard to ignore, but will be well worth the effort to.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.