Analysis

Russia Didn't Like Israel's White Helmets Mission - but Loved the Strike on ISIS

Assad left the Druze defenseless against ISIS ■ Is Israel's defense chief scrambling because of the security situation, or electoral considerations?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on May 17, 2018.
Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File

Military news toggled between the south and the north this week. Wednesday evening, the two fronts momentarily coincided. Within the space of three hours, two Katyusha rockets landed in Lake Kinneret and a Givati officer was wounded on the Gaza border.

The rockets in Lake Kinneret were fired by the Islamic State, which is entrenching itself in its enclave in the southern section of the Syrian Golan Heights in preparation for its final battle with the Assad regime. The group is already under heavy aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian jets.

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As with two other incidents this week, the rockets were termed unintentional spillover from this battle. They were supposed to fly north, toward regime positions, Israel said, but somehow veered northwest, toward the Kinneret.

Earlier this week, Israel downed a Syrian plane that strayed into Israeli airspace on its way to bomb the Islamic State. It also tried and failed to shoot down two heavy rockets fired at the enclave by the Syrian army that came dangerously close to Israel’s border.

It was a bad week for the IDF aerial defense units. First the David’s Sling anti-missile system failed to intercept the rockets during its first operational use. Then the numerous systems deployed in the area somehow missed the two Katyusha launches. Luckily, the Patriot missile batteries did manage to down the Sukhoi jet.

The Lake Kinneret incident was a near miss. The Katyushas landed not far from a beach crowded with swimmers. Death on the beach could have dragged Israel into the final stage of Syria’s bloody civil war, which it wants no part of.

The multiple incidents created some tension with Russia, which sent its foreign minister and its chief of staff here this week to discuss the day after the Assad regime reconquers the Golan. The Russians weren’t happy with Israel’s involvement in extracting members of the White Helmets from Syria; the rescue organization revealed information about Russia’s brutal air strikes, and has therefore been the target of a venomous Russian propaganda campaign. Moscow also complained about the downing of the Sukhoi, until Israel disproved its claim that the jet hadn’t entered Israeli territory.

But Russia did like Israel’s air strike on the Islamic State in response to the Katyusha fire. The head of Russia’s forces in Syria even issued an appreciative press statement.

>>Russia-Israel deal is clear: Iran away from border, Assad’s rule accepted | Analysis ■ Syria blasts Israel's 'criminal operation' after evacuation of White Helmets activists ■ Israel strikes in Syria after rockets fall in Lake Kinneret  <<

Yet another of the endless atrocities in Syria occurred this week less than 100 kilometers from Israel’s border. The Assad regime’s offensive in the Golan drove out several groups affiliated with the Islamic State, and instead of heading for the organization’s southern enclave, they went east and launched a coordinated assault on the city of Sweida, in the heart of Syria’s Druze region. The radical Sunni terrorists, who view the Druze as heretics, slaughtered them with suicide bombers, car bombs and gunfire. They also reportedly abducted around 10 Druze, some of them women.

Some of the Islamic State members who were taken alive were hung from electricity pylons.

The Druze suspect the Assad regime of contributing to the slaughter. Syrian President Bashar Assad didn’t like the way the Druze sat on the fence during the civil war. In recent weeks, as part of the regime’s offensive in southern Syria, it divested the Druze militias of most of their arms. Thus when the Islamic State attacked, the Druze were left almost defenseless.

High electoral politics

Lieberman has been ubiquitous in recent days – speaking with residents of Sderot during a local “parliament” on the eve of last Friday’s escalation, holding consultations with Netanyahu, Argaman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot after the escalation occurred, touring the closed Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza, discussing the Gaza situation with the IDF General Staff, being photographed with Netanyahu and Eisenkot at a meeting with the Russian envoys who came to discuss the Syrian situation, and announcing the appointment of his new military secretary, Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter.

Thursday afternoon he announced he was starting consultations about the appointment of the next chief of staff. Eisenkot’s replacement will take office on January 1. A final decision is supposed to be made in September.

Lieberman’s unusual burst of activity and his massive media presence are apparently due not only to the troubled security situation, but also his electoral woes. The political establishment is preparing for the possibility that Netanyahu will call snap elections. (The prime minister himself visited an IDF induction office for the first time in five years and was photographed with new recruits to the paratroopers and the Border Police.)

So far, Lieberman hasn’t reaped any clear political gains from his job as defense minister. The ongoing crisis in Gaza certainly hasn’t bolstered his public stature. He therefore sees the appointment of the next chief of staff as a chance to gain widespread and favorable public attention, and even to leave his mark.

His announcement didn’t list the names of the candidates he’s considering for the job. But in practice, there are four, all major generals in active service: Deputy Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, his predecessor in the job Yair Golan and major generals Eyal Zamir and Nitzan Alon. The real contest may end up being between Kochavi and Zamir – and theoretically, there’s still a possibility that Lieberman will surprise everyone by bringing an officer who has already retired back into active service.

Soon, the media will start singing the candidates’ praises. But in addition to professional knowledge and expertise, a chief of staff needs one other important quality that the incumbent seems especially blessed with – a spine. Eisenkot, like some of his predecessors, knows how to stand up to the politicians even in times of tension.

Anyone who spoke with senior General Staff officers in recent weeks would have been impressed by their judgment, restraint and understanding of the broad strategic picture. This didn’t come out of nowhere. A positive organizational culture has arisen in the IDF, drawing its strength from the top of the pyramid. In his resolute policy toward Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, his cool-headedness in the face of Palestinian stabbing attacks (which panicked the politicians) and his refusal to get hysterical over the incendiary kites from Gaza, Eisenkot has followed a confident, statesmanlike policy.

This stance isn’t without costs, as evident from leaks about his dispute with Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a security cabinet meeting two weeks ago. “It’s amazing to see how the same chief of staff who’s leading the whole campaign and all the aggressive actions in the north is portrayed as a bleeding heart who’s afraid to confront the kite and balloon flyers in Gaza,” one security cabinet member said.

Eisenkot has apparently gotten used to this, and in any case, his term ends in another five months. The question is what kind of working environment his successor, and the chiefs of staff who come after him, will find.

After several more years of aggressive, childish, hostile public discourse, will the army still maintain its statesmanlike approach? In the long run, the civic courage of these senior officers may be put to even harder tests than it faces today.