Nerves over Rus­sia deal as Is­rael ups ante with As­sad

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY ANSHEL PFEFFER

AF­TER SIX years of wag­ing a se­cret war against Hizbol­lah arms con­voys in Syria, the Is­raeli lead­er­ship is sud­denly much more open about its op­er­a­tions across the north­ern bor­ders.

For the first time since the Syr­ian con­flict be­gan, Is­rael took di­rect re­spon­si­bil­ity for an air strike in the early hours of last Fri­day morn­ing against Hizbol­lah tar­gets in the north of the war-torn coun­try.

The in­ter­cep­tion of a large an­ti­air­craft missile launched by the Syr­i­ans at the Is­raeli jets has led to a war of words be­tween Syria and Is­rael and placed a ques­tion mark over Rus­sia’s fu­ture pol­icy in the re­gion.

Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu met Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin two weeks ago in Moscow and de­manded that Iran and Hizbol­lah be pre­vented from main­tain­ing a mil­i­tary pres­ence in Syria once the civil war has calmed down.

Mr Putin’s re­sponse was un­clear but, on Fri­day morn­ing, af­ter Is­rael took re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack, Is­rael’s am­bas­sador in Moscow was sum­moned to the Rus­sian For­eign Ministry where he was re­port­edly told the IDF no longer had free­dom to act in Syr­ian airspace.

Syria’s UN en­voy then claimed the Rus­sians would not al­low Is­rael to con­tinue op­er­at­ing in his coun­try.

The Rus­sian govern­ment, how­ever, has not for­mally ex­pressed any po­si­tion.

On Tues­day, dur­ing his visit to China, Mr Ne­tanyahu de­nied Moscow had im­posed any form of lim­i­ta­tion on Is­rael’s op­er­a­tions and it would in­deed con­tinue at­tack­ing Hizbol­lah when it be­lieved they were moving arms to Le­banon. Both De­fence Min­is­ter Avig­dor Lieber­man and IDF Chief of Staff Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Gadi Eisenkot made sim­i­lar state­ments.

While the lat­est es­ca­la­tion in rhetoric may not have been planned in ad­vance, it is com­ing at the be­gin­ning of a pe­riod of tran­si­tion in Syria.

Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s regime has been bol­stered by Rus­sia and is now more con­fi­dent of sur­viv­ing in the long term. Mr As­sad is anx­ious to re­assert his sovereignty, even at the price of a clash with Is­rael. His al­lies, Iran and its proxy, Hizbol­lah, are try­ing to so­lid­ify their pres­ence in the coun­try while Is­rael is in­sis­tent on pre­vent­ing the cre­ation of a “Shia cres­cent” which would al­low Hizbol­lah to move strate­gic weapons sys­tems to its strongholds in Le­banon.

Nitzan Nuriel, a for­mer IDF Bri­gadier-Gen­eral and head of the coun­tert­er­ror­ism bureau in the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, said on Mon­day that “Syria’s op­tions of at­tack­ing Is­rael are very limited” but he warned that, at the same time, “Is­rael has only limited in­flu­ence over the war in Syria and devel­op­ments will de­pend very much on what Hizbol­lah does.”

In re­cent weeks, Is­raeli gen­er­als have is­sued warn­ings that in any case of war with Hizbol­lah, Is­rael will see the Le­banese govern­ment as re­spon­si­ble and will at­tack lo­cal in­fras­truc­ture and sym­bols of govern­ment. This is not a new strat­egy but the flurry of state­ments to this ef­fect are a sign of grow­ing ner­vous­ness.

The two main un­knowns are Mr Putin’s po­si­tion and that of the new US ad­min­is­tra­tion. With any con­nec­tion be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Moscow now the sub­ject of in­tense scru­tiny by the FBI and the US me­dia, reach­ing un­der­stand­ings with Rus­sia will be dif­fi­cult.

In the short term, Is­rael wants to pre­serve the free­dom to op­er­ate it has had in Syria, with the quiet agree­ment of the Rus­sians. In the long term, it hopes to get Amer­i­can sup­port for a wider push against Ira­nian in­flu­ence in the re­gion, per­haps with sup­port from Turkey and Arab-Sunni gov­ern­ments like the Saudis and Egypt. The key, for now, is in the Krem­lin.

Is­rael wants to pre­serve its free­dom to op­er­ate in Syria

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