Since the Russians are now in Syria Israel has lost the option to smash the Syrian state into dust at will
Ben Caspit, an Israeli journalist with the Jerusalem Post and the Hebrew-language Maariv newspaper, has conducted a very interesting interview with an unnamed "high-ranking Israeli security official" for the Washington-based Al-Monitor paper. The interview largely centered on the question of how has Russia's intervention in Syria affected Israel's security and freedom of action in the region.
Firstly the unnamed official insists that Russia and Israel maintain a positive relationship in the region:
Asked about the relationship built up between Israel and Russia along the northern front, he said, “It is a very complex. It is a very sensitive relationship that is important to both parties. It certainly weighs in on the positive end of the scale, but that does not mean that there are no problems or complicated issues that must be resolved.”
The Israeli official explains the welcome side of the Russian intervention is that now Russians, rather than the more radical Iranians are running the show:
“The biggest advantage is the fact that the Russians now manage the northern front, for better or for worse. They determine what happens there. Until recently, everything that happened on the northern front was dictated by more radical forces, which pose a significant threat to Israel. They set the pace. Orders came from Iran, through the supreme leader to Qasem Soleimani and the Revolutionary Guard.
“The situation has since changed. Iran is still involved up to its neck, but it is no longer determining the pace of events and no longer giving the orders. The Russians now manage the arena, and the pace of events is dictated by the Kremlin. The Russians have their hands on the dimmer knob and are fiddling with the intensity, increasing or lowering it at will. All in all, this is a very positive development. There is no doubt that Israel finds it preferable to a situation in which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard dictates the pace. Nor do we see any indication that the current situation is about to change anytime soon.”
Nonetheless from the fact that Israel has been patching up al-Qaeda and sporadically hitting the Syrian army and Hezbollah in Syria it is not difficult to discern that Israel's strategic calculus is that stabilization of the Syrian state is not welcome -- yet this is exactly the Russians' goal. So is Israel really that glad that Russia is now in Syria?
He went on, “Israel has some strategic leverage over Iran, which runs Hezbollah, the most important of which is our ability to deliver a death blow to the Syrian regime with relative ease, especially in its current state.
Our toolbox for the day of reckoning also includes the possibility of making the [Syrian] regime pay a deadly price — immediately, at that — if and when a conflict breaks out with Iran and Hezbollah.
In other words, the Israeli security official is concerned that the Russian presence in Syria effectively removes Syria from the map of operational opportunities that Israel has prepared for the day of reckoning.
The Israel Defense Forces estimates that that day will not happen anytime soon, and that the chance of Iran ordering Hezbollah to ignite the front is not high, given the current situation. At the same time, however, it is obvious that the front could erupt in seconds, given the extreme volatility of the situation and circumstances on the ground.
On one hand, the Russian presence in the region should rein back incidents of that sort. On the other hand, it could create a complicated situation for Israel if such a conflagration does break out. Aware of this new situation, Israel is now looking for operational alternatives and creative solutions.
In other words Israel absolutely loved the fact it was so much more cohesive and powerful than Syria that it could have grinded the Syrian state into dust at will if it so chose. However, with Russia having joined the fray on the side of the Syrian state that option now no longer exists.
Israel remains on good terms with Moscow because it understands the importance of that relationship, but chances are that privately it can not wait for the day when Russians pack up and leave.