Russian President Vladimir Putin is a personal friend of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At least that's what Sharon was seduced into believing, reckoning that he had persuaded Putin two years ago to give up selling advanced anti-tank weapons and planes to Syria.
The Syrians are well aware of their military weaknesses in air and surface-to-air battles with the Israel Defense Forces, but Israel has not been satisfied with Syria's level of awareness and tried to sharpen it. It's an example of an Israeli policy that was too successful.
Over the last couple of years, Israel has taken to attacking Syrian military targets in response to activities by Hezbollah and Palestinian organizations based in Damascus. The Syrian air defense system, radar and surface-to-air missile systems have been exposed as poor. Assad was personally embarrassed by noisy Israeli air sorties right over one of his palaces while he was there.
The Israeli intention was to pressure Assad into limiting the activity of his proxies on the northern border. The results could be the opposite, prompting him to strengthen his air defenses. And the address for that is clear: Russia.
President Assad, who last year visited Beijing to strengthen bilateral ties with China, will be going to Moscow in two weeks for a three-day official visit. On that festive occasion, Assad could ask Putin for vital military assistance.
If that happens, it will be a later, smaller version of what happened when Israel bombed deep inside Egypt in the winter of 1969-1970, prompting President Gamal Nasser to visit Moscow and plead with Leonard Brezhnev to send him planes - and pilots - as well as the surface-to-surface missiles that were so devastating to the Israeli air force during the war of attrition and the first week of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Brezhnev or Putin, Soviet or Russian, Arab leaders expect weapons and not only words from Moscow.
This is Putin's second term, and he feels free of commitments to those who granted him the office - the Yeltsin family and their associates - and toward someone else who won a second term, in Washington. Putin is angry at George Bush, who has long since won in Afghanistan but has kept his military bases in central Asia, in former Soviet counties.
The Russians are not thrilled by the expansion of NATO and the European Union toward their borders, their "near abroad," as they call it. The victory by pro-Western forces over the pro-Russian forces in the Ukraine, which created a rare confluence of agreement between Bush and Western Europe, worries Putin and the Russian security establishment that surrounds him and from whence he came.
The Foreign Ministry's center for political research, the smallest and poorest of Israel's intelligence branches but perhaps the most sober of all of them in its political assessments, has been warning in recent weeks about the formation of a Sino-Russian axis as a counterweight to the American supremacy in the world, which would have a bad influence on Israel's strategic position.
Such an alliance could rip open a hole in the front that has formed against a nuclear Iran. Bush prefers to devote 2005 to political activity, to go through two more elections in Iraq (for a constitution and the permanent government), and only after 2006 go to war against the ayatollahs. But Sino-Russian opposition could speed up Bush's military moves.
The incoming American foreign policy leadership - Condoleezza Rice, the designated undersecretary Robert Zelick and the designated deputy secretary for political affairs Nicolas Barnes, now ambassador to NATO - is considered friendlier to Israel than the outgoing trio - Colin Powell, Richard Armitage and Mark Grossman.
That leadership is more aggressive toward Iran, more suspicious of Russia and more combative toward Syria, against whom the U.S. has suspended its tensions for the coming weeks in exchange for a promise from Damascus to freeze its aid to the opponents of an Iraqi election. This is all far from being a replay of the Cold War, the conflict that had so many ramifications for the Israeli-Arab front, but there is a searing cold in the air. It may be seasonal, but it could last.
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