On the outside, Israel is all smiles and full of praise for way the coordination with Moscow is working for averting clashes between its air force and Russian warplanes over Syria. This goodwill was conspicuous in the compliments Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin traded when they met on the sidelines of the Paris climate summit Monday, Nov. 30.
But the first disquieting sign appeared Tuesday, Dec. 1. Senior Russian and Israeli officers were due to meet in Tel Aviv to discuss strengthening the cooperation between the two army commands. But no word from Moscow or Jerusalem indicated whether the meeting had taken place.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report that this week, the show of optimism is giving way to an uneasy sensation in the offices of the prime minister, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott. They suspect an ulterior motive behind Russia’s military movements in southern Syria, especially its air strikes against Syrian rebels, just across from Israel’s Golan border.
In particular, Moscow may be giving Hizballah and Iran an umbrella for achieving their longstanding design to displace the Syrian rebels with Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah forces and deploy them along Israel’s Golan border.
This suspicion gained ground when Tuesday, Dec. 1, the day after the Putin-Netanyahu encounter, the combined Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah units expanded their thrust from the southern Syrian town of Deraa to the Golan town of Quneitra, within sight of Israel’s defense positions.
All that day, heavy battles raged over the rebel-held line of hills running from a point just south of Quneitra to the Israeli-Syrian-Jordanian border junction. The combined force was supported by Russian air strikes and heavy tanks and artillery, seen for the first time in this war arena.
When the fighting resumed Wednesday, the IDF placed its Golan units on high alert and an extra-vigilant eye was trained on this battle.
The Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah side is gaining a distinct advantage from the deep feud dividing rebel ranks. The Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Syrian Nusra Front forces are tearing into each other with suicide bombers and explosive cars. Tuesday, an ISIS-rigged car bomb blew up at Nusra headquarters near Quneitra (see photo).
But this also means that an Islamic State force has come dangerously close to the Israeli border.
However, even more perils are in store if Bashar Assad’s army backed by Iran, Hizballah and Russia manages to capture the hills opposite the Golan:
1. Two years of unrelenting Israeli military and intelligence efforts to keep Hizballah and Iranian forces away from its Golan border will have gone to naught.
2. Hizballah will open the door for Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers to set up a command center right up to the Israeli border.
3. Israel’s steadfast policy and military action to prevent advanced Iranian weapons reaching Hizballah in Lebanon via Syria will be superseded. On the Golan, Hizballah will have gained direct access to any weapons it wants directly from Syria and be able to deploy them at far shorter distances from Israeli targets than from their firing positions in Lebanon.
4. Vladimir Putin attaches extreme importance to recovering southern Syria from the rebel forces backed by the US and Israel, because he regards the threat to the Assad regime as great from the south as it is from the north or the center.
5. Israel faces a grave dilemma between keeping up its “honeymoon” with Moscow by giving way on its essential security interests, or taking the bull by the horns and keeping the enemy at bay, whatever the cost to the understanding reached with Putin.
Officials in Jerusalem point out that the threat advancing on the Golan peaked just hours after the Russian leader met the prime minister in Paris. Putin is conducting a hands-on policy in Syria and keeps close track of the slightest occurrence on the battlefield. He must have been perfectly aware of the state of play with regard to the Golan when he met Netanyahu, but nonetheless kept it out of their conversation