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.
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.
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 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.