The major fighting all over Syria, a small portion of which is taking place next to Israel’s Golan Heights border, reflects recent attempts by a number of parties in the Syrian civil war to improve their positions before the cease-fire takes effect. The prospect that the Russian-American understandings will result in a full cease-fire appear modest, but the parties fighting aren’t taking any chances. They’re busy trying to grab what they can.
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As a result, the Assad regime launched deadly airstrikes in Idlib and Homs, and in battles north of the Alawite salient in Latakia. Meanwhile, several rebel groups are trying to push the Assad regime out of its last strongholds near the Israeli border – from the outskirts of Quneitra to the slopes of Mount Hermon. As a result, three times recently, Syrian army fire strayed into Israel. The Israeli army responded by attacking Syrian positions in the area.
Israel, which isn’t involved in efforts at a diplomatic solution in Syria, just as it’s not meddling in the war, is skeptical that the talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, will put Syria, or what’s left of it, on track for a halt to the fighting. All similar efforts have failed.
The last of them, which Russia led in February, finally collapsed after a bit more than a month, in large part due to the Russians, who mercilessly bombed rebel groups considered more moderate. This happened despite Moscow’s promise to focus on the Islamic State and similar groups.
The U.S.-Russian understandings made public come down to four provisions: 1. a cease-fire.
2. An immediate easing of the transfer of humanitarian aid to the many areas that have been badly damaged around Syria.
3. Coordination by the two major powers of bombing operations against positions held by the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, now known as the Support Front for the People of al-Sham. (Even though the group has made efforts to distance itself from Al-Qaida and link up with other rebel groups.)
4. A promise to make the other understandings reached public soon, if the situation across Syria stabilizes.
From Israel’s standpoint, even if it didn’t admit as much directly, there were advantages from the last five and a half years of fighting in Syria, first and foremost the erosion of the Syrian army. The stabilization of the Assad regime over the past year, thanks largely to Russian assistance, worried Israel because it presented the prospect of a triad of power based in Lebanon: Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
At the moment, it appears the Kerry-Lavrov compromise, if it’s carried out, leaves Bashar Assad in power at least in the short term. If the regime survives and Hezbollah gets time to return to focusing some of its efforts to preparations against the Israeli army, that of course wouldn’t be good for Israel. And from what has been reported, there are no answers to other key questions for Israel: the situation near the border in the Golan, the future of the Druze in southern Syria, and indirectly, the Kurds’ efforts to create territorial contiguity in the areas they control.