It’s as though Israel, Syria, and Russia are all now entering a new phase of both recalibrating their relations and roles with one another, but also testing the water to see who backs down when the heat gets turned up. Russia has not officially said it will back Assad if he were to start firing at Israeli jets, but the Syrian president clearly thinks it will. But that is not the most poignant question, but more whether Assad’s strained resources on the battlefield could continue to hold the ground in Syria if it were to engage in a new campaign against Israel.
Netanyahu is banking on Assad not being so stupid as to lay himself vulnerable to hardcore Sunni extremist groups taking advantage of his troops being preoccupied with Israel, who will likely take back key ground.
And yet, Israel is also pushing its luck in threatening to attack Assad for two reasons: firstly, it would be stretching its military resources, and the temptation from Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon to strike it might be too much to contain; secondly, Israel simply cannot afford to anger Russia and become its enemy.
It needs a Russian air campaign against its fighters as much as it needs a hole in the head.
I would argue, though, that Putin may well test how far he can go with Israel, who is not really in a position to fight either Russia or its allies Hezbollah, or Iran. He may well use the Syrian Israeli border as a new red line, as was recently suggested by Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama.
If we are to believe the Syrian ambassador to the UN, who recently warned that his government’s response to the Israeli strikes marks a new phase of the conflict, where Israeli attacks would merit further responses, then the current diplomatic apparatus is balancing on a knife edge.
Equally, if we are also to believe one of Lebanon’s leading academics, Dr. Jamal Wakim, who claims that Israel is preparing for a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, then Russia telling Israel that it no longer has ‘free reign’ in Syrian airspace is a milestone which all sides should observe as a lucid warning. If Syria can move the latest generation surface-to-air rockets across the country into Lebanon without fear of an Israeli airstrike, then Russia is settling doubts once and for all about how committed it is to Syria and its allies in any regional dispute.
But Israel often punches above its weight in regional clashes, and the bravado chest-beating of some of its supporters is breath taking. “Israel reserves the right to respond” argued US academic Dan Arbell, on RT’s ‘CrossTalk’ show.