Recent reports have indicated that hundreds of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops entered Syria in early September. Moreover, the accord on intelligence among Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria suggests Russian troops will be assisting the Iranians in the war against ISIS. That may not be all.
Israeli officials are appropriately concerned that Russian troops will be operating in the Golan Heights along with Hezbollah and Assad-led Syrian forces. Israel is faced with the additional challenge of the expanded Russian presence in Syria, especially in the Latakia region, where in the past IDF forces destroyed arms convoys intended for Hezbollah.
When Israeli forces returned fire on two Syrian positions near Quneitra, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded: “We respect Israel’s interests related to the Syrian civil war but we are concerned about its attacks on Syria.” Clearly this statement is mutually contradictory; if you are concerned about Israel’s interests than it must be protected by defensive military action. Nonetheless, this response stands as a warning signal. Certain attacks may be justified as long as they do not jeopardize the position and security of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad.
In a recent trip to Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that Israel “will maintain its position of noninvolvement in the Syrian civil war, but I would not allow Hezbollah and other terrorist groups to amass advanced weapons systems, nor would I tolerate attacks against the Golan Heights.” This statement was obviously an effort to establish rules of engagement with Russian forces, rules that would be violated if Russia equips Hezbollah with sophisticated missiles. There is little doubt that the presence of Russian forces introduces a new and somewhat constraining variable in Israeli strategic thinking.
It is also instructive that Iran has agreed to purchase $21 billion of aircraft and satellite equipment from Russia, one of the largest military transactions in Russian history and a transaction made possible through the lifting of sanctions.
What this means is that Israel is not only surrounded by Muslim neighbors with evil intent, but Russia directly or indirectly, could be in an adversarial position as well. From the defensive position Israel is in, there aren’t easy answers. In the past the support of the United States served as a counter-weight to the hostile intent of Israel’s Arab neighbors. However, the Iran deal militates against active U.S. assistance. For the Obama team, Israel is a distraction standing in the way of a regional plan that includes U.S. withdrawal and Iranian hegemony.
Russia’s enlarged military footprint in Syria has not even led to a whimper from President Obama, a silence that sends a clear and uncluttered message to Israel. As a consequence, Israel is on its own unmoored from ties to the United States. This complicates military action, but it does not forestall what may be necessary.
Israelis, realize what Evelyn Waugh once noted, that “barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity.” Israel has experienced those atrocities with knifings on the street, often from unexpected quarters. Now it is alone on a globe that seemingly does not care about the Jewish state. The questions that remain are: can Israel defend itself and can it maintain the morale necessary to defeat its apparent and possible enemies? These are “big” questions.