Is it not strange that in all the debates, the ramblings, the serious political commentary, thoughtful academic analysis and shoot-from-the-hip barbershop talk on the Syrian Civil War, that barely anyone brings up Israel? A brief look into the history books tells us the state, surrounded by the West Bank and Mediterranean Sea, has been a big player in the ever labile region that is the Middle East since its foundation in 1948. From the Ben-Gurion days, to the Meir era, to the current period of Netanyahu hardliner-policy, Israel isn’t just one of the pawns. In fact, it often plays king and queen proactively and sometimes aggressively.
Just a few weeks ago, Israel’s involvement in Syria was confined to a few controlling flights through foreign airspace and occasional attacks on weapons shipments. Military brass watched these activities from comfortable spectator seats on Golan Heights. With the Assad regime enjoying Russian support and thereby resurgent self-confidence, Israel could burn down the garden fence and step on the lawn.
Back in September, Israeli air incursions were everyday business with Israeli military having a carte blanche in their pocket. However, on 12 September, Syrian antiaircraft fire allegedly downed an Israeli warplane and drone near the border, an act immediately denied by Israel Defense Forces, while claiming its own aircraft targeted artillery positions in the Syrian Golan Heights overnight. The Israeli military considered its attack a response to what appeared to be spill-over from the fighting of Syrian government forces in the Quneitra area after a projectile allegedly landed on the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights for the fourth time within a few days.
Some media reports suggested the Syrian military shot at Israeli jets that were ‘not even over their own airspace’ which would, of course, lead to an ultimate escalation between the two countries. Recently, the Tel Aviv-based daily Haaretz claimed that Russia ‘has finished beefing up its aerial defences’ in the northern Syrian port city Tartus, while The Washington Post stated Russia’s S-300 and S-400 systems could cover the territory of several nearby states including parts of Israel all the way to the southern Negev.
Even if it isn’t possible to evaluate the accuracy of said reports, the situation is becoming more intense.
The Assad government has regained a position of power and feels safe with Russia on its side, while it intends to re-establish the strength of its own military. Furthermore, the pro-Assad public in Syria, albeit a minority, welcomes positive news in regards to the handling of Israel. Keeping in mind Israel’s Operation Orchard attacks against a facility that Israel claimed was a nuclear site in the Deir ez-Zor region in September 2007, Syria has more than once expressed its aggressive stance towards its neighbour, but couldn’t act due to a lack of serious military clout. This was seen in 2010, when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned that Israeli cities would be targeted by Syrian missiles in a future war. The fact that Israel controls two-thirds of the Golan Heights is painful for the powers that be in Damascus and their supporters.
Now, finally, Assad can publicly take a stand against the ‘intruders.’ At the same time, he is able to send a message to groups opposing him. If his military is strong enough to confront Israel, it is certainly powerful enough to handle under-armed militants such as Al Qaeda whether they be scattered or organised. According to The New York Times, Syrian government supporters have suspected that Israeli strikes in the Quneitra area are supposed to be aiding insurgents, some of them closely linked to Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile on the other side of the border, politicians, government staffers, and military analysts are weighing up the pros and cons of relinquishing Israel’s remaining policy of non-interference. Despite being somewhat neutral in the conflict between the Syrian government and rebel forces, Israel ‘has been carrying out a covert campaign to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons from Syria to Hezbollah,’ as The New York Times noted a few weeks ago. Israel may fear a stronger collaboration between Damascus and Hezbollah, the militant Lebanon-based Shi’a group, that has been helping the Assad regime for quite some time now and with which Israel fought a month-long war in 2006.
In addition, emerging tension between Russia and the United States after the ceasefire in Syria collapsed in mid-September could create ‘a very uncomfortable reality’ for Israel, as Ron Prosor, the former Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, recently said. The White House is considering its options in the face of an ongoing Russian-Syrian siege of Aleppo and a reinvigorated Syrian air force.
At the same time, Israel has to be ready to react accordingly to new developments in the Syrian Civil War. Normally, the Netanyahu administration could just rely on the fact that its Air Force is by far the strongest in the region. However, Russia’s massive military presence and the aforementioned aerial defence headquarters in Tartus has changed the balance of power in the Middle East, which is why Israel cannot quickly start an operation.
In 2015, Binyamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin built a rather close relationship. However, the so-called ‘Russian Romance’ doesn’t put Israel into the driver’s seat. The established Russian-Israeli coordination system is meant to avoid any accidents or violent encounters, but Russia is not obliged to report any military actions near Israel’s border in advance and has reportedly penetrated the Israeli airspace several times without being shot down. This is unusual given Israel’s zero tolerance policy in regards to its airspace.
Ultimately, Israel’s hands seem to be tied, while Russia, quietly and secretly, has managed to re-establish a strong position in the Middle East and is now seen in Israel as the main player in the ‘axis of evil,’ which also includes Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The possibility of an Israeli military intervention cannot be ruled out. And, if Israel clashes with Hezbollah in the near future, it will certainly gaze at Russia and wait for a reaction. The once undisputedly dominant country in the Middle East now maintains a weak strategic position in the region.