On Thursday morning, Israel delivered a daring message to all the powers involved in the war in Syria, that it was prepared for military confrontation with any one of them if it saw such confrontation as being vital to its security.
Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin reached a ceasefire agreement during their July 7 meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Trump was besides himself with glee, boasting how, after years of peace attempts that had gone nowhere under the Obama Administration, his new truce marks the beginning of the end of the war. “All of the sudden you are going to have no bullets being fired in Syria,” he predicted.
The Russians were equally exuberant, saying they planned to dispatch military police to Syria to patrol the ceasefire lines. They were going to establish “de-escalation zones” across Syria, and ultimately stabilize the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Israel, who was not consulted on the ceasefire – which directly affected her security situation – and was basically told by both sides to smile and bear it. Prime Minister Netanyahu was not happy, and as has been the case with the pending Iran nuclear deal in 2015, he told anyone who would listen that those Russian “de-escalation zones” on his country’s border meant Iranian militia and Hezbollah on that border, and that, he stated emphatically, was unacceptable.
What followed were heated debates between Jerusalem and Moscow, inclosing a disappointing Netanyahu visit with Putin; and similar exchanges between Jerusalem and Washington. It all came down to whether Israel would retreat, realizing it was facing powers far bigger than her own – or do what it often does when it comes to challenges of its security.
On Thursday morning, Israel sent a clear message – presuming it was the IAF which bombed (or, according to the official Syrian announcement, rocketed) the Syrian chemical plant in Hama district in western Syria. Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yaakov Amidror wrote in Israel Hayom Friday that while until now Israel’s policy has focused on stopping the shipment of Iranian and Syrian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, now Israel will be targeting sites belonging to the Syrian government, should she view them as posing a threat.
It seems that the decision-makers have understood that if Israel did not act, a threatening situation could arise in which new weapons systems would reach Hezbollah and significantly improve its capabilities, Amidror concluded.
Zvi Barel noted in Ha’aretz Friday the timing of the Israeli attack, shortly after Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin in Sochi on the Black Sea, where the latter apparently read the former the riot act regarding Israeli direct involvement in Syria.
The Russian doctrine in Syria—borne by its experience in Aleppo, where Iran sabotaged a ceasefire arranged without its consent—determines that Russia must seek Iranian support for its actions in Syria. In a sense, Iran owns Assad, through the strong presence of its militias and Hezbollah in the country. Netanyahu knows that despite whatever assurances the Russians would give him that they would block Hezbollah from stretching their forces into the Syrian part of Israel’s northern border – they can’t live up to those assurances, by reason of their own doctrine.
And so, on Thursday morning, with the bombing deep inside Syria, and some 40 miles from a Russian military base in Ladakiya, Netanyahu signaled that Israel was prepared for direct conflict with the Russians in Syria, should it be necessary.
The defense establishment in Israel estimates that Syria and Hezbollah will rule out retaliation for the attack attributed to Israel, according to Ma’ariv. The complementary message Israel sent to its two foes was the largest IDF exercises in decades along the northern border. Hezbollah was watching and decided, for now, to withhold action. It remains to be seen whether the Russians would retaliate at some point in the future for Israel’s defiance, or reach the same conclusion they reached with Iran, namely that you can’t go around making ceasefires and “de-escalation zones” without consulting the most powerful army in the region.