By YAAKOV LAPPIN, GATESTONE—
Russia is aggressively squaring off with an indecisive and rather meek West about Syria, and in the process, is also threatening to undermine Israeli efforts to ensure that Iran and Syria do not ship strategic weapons to Hezbollah.
The Syrian civil war has become a dangerous and complex battle of multiple actors and their proxies: Sunni versus Shi’ite, Iran versus the Gulf states, Al-Qaeda versus Hezbollah, and on a global scale, the United States versus Russia.
Moscow is trying to deter a potential US or NATO-led initiative to set up a no-fly zone over areas of Syria, and is seeking to stop Western-led air strikes against chemical weapons sites.
Russia also seems concerned that recent air strikes in Damascus targeting Hezbollah-bound guided Iranian missiles — strikes attributed by the foreign media to Israel — will pave the way to such an intervention.
Israel has no interest in getting involved in the Syrian civil war. Rather, it is looking out for the safety of millions of citizens, who already live in the shadow of some 80,000 Hezbollah rockets, and would be threatened further by the transfer of precise, powerful missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In recent days, Russia unleashed a flurry of moves to establish its support of Syria.
The Russian moves include: Declaring that it will proceed with deliveries of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Assad, mobilizing war ships to the eastern Mediterranean, and selling sophisticated surface-to-sea Yakhont missiles to Assad.
Moscow’s recent maneuvers might be more bluster than real — the S-300 has yet to be delivered, and Russia was in 2010 talked out of selling the formidable air defense system to Iran.
The threat, however, was serious enough for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make an unscheduled trip last week to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin. The two later held a press conference, repeating their public positions, but it is doubtful that those statements were a complete reflection of their private exchange.
Israel is opposed to Assad receiving the S-300 missile for several reasons: With its sophisticated radars and range of 200 kilometers, the S-300 can hamper Israel Air Force aircraft seeking to monitor Hezbollah in Lebanon. The system can also disrupt future Israeli efforts to intercept the transit of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah through Syria. Finally, Assad can choose to smuggle S-300 batteries to Hezbollah or Iran.
Should the S-300 fall into Iranian hands, the future potential mission of launching a military strike on Iran’s developing nuclear program would be more even more complex than it already is. Knowing that the S-300 was in Hezbollah’s hands, and could target Israeli aircraft sent to stop it, would only boost the Shi’ite terror organization’s confidence to launch cross-border attacks on Israel. For these reasons, Jerusalem will find Russia’s delivery of such a system to Syria to be an intolerable development; it is safe to assume that Israel will act to prevent this from happening.
Similarly, the Russian Yakhont missiles already delivered to Syria threaten Israel Navy ships carrying out vital missions in the Mediterranean.
Behind closed-doors, intense diplomacy — including the sudden visit by CIA Director John Brennan to Israel — is underway to try and contain these developments, and prevent them from triggering further regional security deterioration.