Israel has suffered a big setback in the Syrian conflict with the deployment of Russian military police in the safe zone being established in south-western Syria near the Golan Heights. The Russian Defence Ministry announced the deployment on Monday. Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff, said in Moscow that Russian forces had set up checkpoints and observation posts in the southwest de-escalation zone. The Russian general said that the US, Israel and Jordan have been informed of the deployment.
The boundaries of the de-escalation zone were agreed upon between Russia and the US on the eve of the meeting between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. According to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Israel’s security considerations had been taken into account while finalizing the de-escalation zone. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since openly voiced rejection of the US-Russia agreement, arguing that the deal does not adequately address Israel’s threat perceptions regarding Iranian and Hezbollah presence in the south-western regions of Syria.
The Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman was on record that Jerusalem has set certain red lines. “We will not tolerate any Iranian presence on the border and we will continue to act against that,” he said. Quite obviously, Israel does not trust Russia. Israel suspects that it is a matter of time before Shia militias and Hezbollah would start quietly infiltrating south-western Syria, setting up the Assad regime and its Iranian friends to consolidate control over the border areas near Israel and Lebanon.
In reality, though, all this is a major strategic play. Israel has long paid, supplied and supported the extremist groups (including al-Qaeda and ISIS groups) controlling the area where the de-escalation zone is being set up. Israel even provided fire support for these terrorist groups whenever they came under attack by the Syrian government forces.
Israel was hoping that the area could somehow be kept as remain as a zone of ‘frozen conflict’, which could be incrementally annexed by Israel. Israel’s preference, therefore, was that the de-escalation zone near Golan Heights should be enforced by the US – and not Russia. But then, Washington does not want to get entangled. As a commentary in the Atlantic magazine put it this week,
Pentagon is focused on operations in Mosul and Raqqa hundreds of miles away—commanders on the ground would surely see a U.S. military presence in south-western Syria as a costly and unnecessary diversion of manpower in the fight against the Islamic State. Given limited intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets in the region, it is also unlikely that U.S.Central Command would be happy diverting scarce ISR platforms to monitor the ceasefire… All this… means that the Trump-Putin ceasefire is likely to hand Russia the keys to south-western Syria.
That is more or less what is unfolding on the ground. The US-Russia agreement envisages the supervision of the de-escalation zone area by Russian military police.
It is check and mate for Israel’s interventionist policy in Syria. The Russian monitors will react harshly if Israel plays the spoiler’s role. Plainly put, the Israeli dream of territorial expansion into south-western Syria as part of a ‘Greater Israel’ (even beyond the occupied Golan Heights) has crash landed. Israel’s Plan B was that as part of any Syrian settlement, the international community should at least legitimise Israel’s occupation of Golan Heights. That is also not going to happen.
Netanyahu’s credibility once again takes a big blow. Two years ago, his ‘red line’ over the Iran nuclear programme – that Israel would act on its own militarily against Iran, etc. – turned out to be sheer bluster. Now he has drawn a ‘red line’ in Israel’s northern front regarding Iranian presence in Syria, but lacks the capacity to enforce it. The international community is simply ignoring his tantrums once again.
Significantly, US has done nothing to oppose a massive Hezbollah operation which began last week to take control of the heights on the Lebanon-Syrian border that were under the occupation of various insurgent groups such as Ahrar, al-Qaeda, ISIS (some of whom were Israel’s bedfellows.) The Iranian media reported today that Hezbollah fighters have scored a stunning victory. Of course, it is hugely important for Hezbollah (and Iran) to ensure that the Lebanon-Syria border remains open.