Analysis

Putin's Interests in Syria and Lebanon Are Limiting Israel's Military Options

Playing chess with Hezbollah is one thing. Trying to figure out what Putin wants, in Syria and perhaps also in Lebanon, even as Hezbollah is trying to manufacture weapons there, is a completely different challenge

Netanyahu, Putin and an S-300 missile
Kobi Gideon / GPO, AP

One reason for Israel’s exceptional caution in dealing with Hamas in the Gaza Strip is its growing concern over the northern front. Though it may sound like a threadbare excuse, this seems to be one of the considerations driving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to decide, time after time, to try to reach a cease-fire in Gaza.

The problem Israel faces in the north, in a nutshell, is the real danger that its operational window of opportunity is closing. In recent years, Israel has exploited the upheaval in the Arab world to expand its offensive activity, most of which is secret.

Listen: Why Netanyahu wants truce in Gaza and to delay elections as much as possible

Via hundreds of airstrikes and special operations, the army and the intelligence agencies have worked to distance the danger of another war and reduce the enemy’s operational capabilities in the event that war does break out. 

In Syria and Lebanon, the campaign initially focused on preventing Iran from smuggling advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. But over the last year or so, a new mission has been added – preventing Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. This peaked with a flurry of incidents between the Israel Defense Forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards last winter and spring.

But the stabilization of the Assad regime in Syria is gradually changing the situation. Whether Russia is truly still angry over the downing of a Russian spy plane (by Syrian anti-aircraft fire) during an Israeli airstrike two months ago or is just exploiting it to dictate new strategic rules in the north, the result is the same.

Israel hasn’t completely halted airstrikes in Syria; two have been reported since the plane was downed. But it’s clear that Russia is making things tougher.

Even this week’s hasty meeting between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an international conference in Paris, which was finally arranged after much Israeli effort, evidently hasn’t resolved the crisis. Putin said Thursday that he wasn’t planning another meeting with Netanyahu anytime soon.

Russia has made it clear to Israel in many ways that the status quo ante is gone. The air force’s energetic activity was disrupting their main project — restoring the Assad regime’s control over most of Syria and signing long-term contracts with Syrian President Bashar Assad that will protect Moscow’s security and economic interests in the country.

The change is evident in the more aggressive tone on the hot line connecting Israel Air Force headquarters to the Russian base in Khmeimim, in northwest Syria, whose purpose is to prevent aerial incidents between Israel and Russia. It’s also evident in the confrontational attitude of Russian planes and anti-aircraft batteries in Syria.

A problem may also be developing in Lebanon. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Netanyahu warned of efforts by Iran and Hezbollah to set up missile production facilities in the Beirut area. Given the problems its smuggling operations had encountered, the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force apparently decided it had to shorten the distance between the manufacturer and the customer by moving its efforts to improve the accuracy of Hezbollah’s rockets to Lebanon.

Netanyahu’s speech did its job. In the three days between that speech and the tour of Beirut the Lebanese government conducted for diplomats to rebut it, someone worked hard to get rid of the evidence. But over the long run, Iran seems unlikely to abandon this effort.

What’s even more worrying is that Putin has recently displayed increased interest in events in Lebanon. In the worst-case scenario, the defensive umbrella — both real and symbolic — that Russia has spread over northwest Syria would be expanded to Lebanon, further complicating Israel’s calculus.

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Even now, at least according to Arab media reports, Israel hasn’t conducted an airstrike in Lebanon since February 2014, when the IAF, apparently pursuing an arms convoy that had crossed the border from Syria, bombed a target in Janta, a few hundred meters to the Lebanese side of the Lebanon-Syria border.

Hezbollah, which was willing to pretend the spit was rain as long as its convoys were being bombed on the Syrian side, immediately responded with a series of attacks by Druze residents of the Syrian Golan Heights.

The cell’s commander, Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, and his successor, Hezbollah’s Jihad Mughniyeh, were both subsequently killed in attacks attributed to Israel. Since then, Israel has confined its attacks to Syria.

But playing chess with Hezbollah is one thing. Trying to figure out what Putin wants, in Syria and perhaps also in Lebanon, even as Hezbollah is trying to manufacture weapons there, is a challenge of a completely different order of magnitude.

Netanyahu was presumably hinting at this problem, among others, when he spoke about security considerations that he can’t share with the public, at the memorial for Paula Ben-Gurion earlier this week.