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ISRAEL'S OFFER TO SYRIA & RUSSIA

Syrian President Bashar Assad

How can Israel avoid a further deterioration to an all-out war with Syria that could even involve Russia? Isracast analyst David Essing sees signs that Israel has been trying to forge a deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could forestall such a chain reaction that neither side desires. 

FSA (Free Syrian Army) figther in Alepo, Syria

 Why could the vicious bloody civil war in Syria now spill over into a new war between Syria and Israel? Israel has tried to stay out of the internecine bloodbath of a civil war that has been raging inside Syria for some two years. Since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Bashar regime has strictly enforced the cease-fire agreement with Israel. Israeli and Syrian forces did clash during the First Lebanon War in Lebanon, but even that did not boil over into an all-out war along the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights. But in the midst of the rebels' attempt to topple the Assad regime, Israel drew a red line: Israeli forces would intervene if the Syrian government tried to ship its chemical weapons or 'game-changing' weapons across the border to Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon that has repeatedly attacked Israel. Last January, Israeli intelligence detected that a Syrian truck convoy was travelling to Lebanon with a shipment of advanced Russian made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles that could pose a serious threat to Israeli aircrafts. The convoy was bombed, reportedly by Israeli jets. And now this month, Israeli jets, reportedly from inside Lebanese air space, carried out two separate air strikes destroying more shipments bound for Hezbollah that included Fateh-110 surface to surface missiles that could reach Tel Aviv if launched from the Lebanese border area. Israel did not accept responsibility for any of these air strikes in order not to force Assad to retaliate. However, a Pentagon official apparently screwed up and leaked the story that indeed it was Israel! 

 Now put on the spot, a Syrian official declared that in the event of any future Israeli attack, Syrian forces were under orders to retaliate immediately. Iran also pressured Assad to permit Hezbollah to open a military front against Israel on the Golan Heights which has, by and large, remained quiet except for some errant shells and rockets fighting by the warring parties inside Syria. In return, an Israeli official telephoned the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem, warning that if Syria attacked Israel on the Golan, Israel would topple the Assad regime. The last thing President Bashar Assad needed now was to get into a war with Israel. Assad's top priority is to survive by weathering, with Russia's solid support, the rebel offensive which he has done despite most predictions that his days were numbered. 

 Moscow's rules... 

Russian Prime-Minister Vladimir Putin

 The plot thickens, and from Moscow's perspective things are getting out of hand. After Russia has lost Egypt, Iraq, and most recently Libya, President Vladimir Putin is determined not to lose Syria and his naval bases in the Mediterranean port of Tartus. In a clear message to both the U.S. and Israel, a number of Russian naval vessels were dispatched to the Mediterranean. Russia has been supplying Assad's army with weapons while the West has enforced a partial arms embargo on the rebels (however Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been arming them surreptitiously). Moscow has a signed but unfilled agreement to sell S-300 state-of-the-art anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that although Moscow would not sign any new agreements with Assad, it was duty bound to honor prior arms sales. This sounded alarm bells in Jerusalem. On a trip to China, Netanyahu telephoned U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington to discuss the situation. And immediately on his return from China, the Prime Minister telephoned Putin who invited him to come to the Black Sea resort of Sochi for an urgent meeting where he publicly expressed his displeasure over the Israeli air strikes on Syria: 'At this crucial period it is especially important to refrain from any moves that can further shake the situation'. And what did Netanyahu tell Putin? Channel 2 TV in Israel has reported the Prime Minister as saying: 'The sale to Syria would likely draw Israel into a response, possibly propelling the region into war'. While interviewed on Channel 10 TV, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, a former chief of IDF Intelligence, said: 'To some extent, the current situation reminds me of the time before the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967'. 

 The U.S., which wants to stay out of the Syrian conflagration, has warned: 'The Russian missile shipment to Syria will embolden Assad and prolong the conflict". 

 Isracast Assessment: Over the past two days Israel has signaled to Syria and Russia that it wants to cool the tension. Interviewed on Israel Radio, Maj. Gen.(ret.) Amos Gilad a top adviser in the Defense Ministry, who often articulates defense policy, made this conciliatory statement: 'President Assad is in control of the Syrian Army's weapons systems and behaves responsibly toward Israel while realizing the force (Israel) that is facing him. Israel is not acting intentionally against the regime of Bashar Assad and the Israeli air strikes in Syria are motivated self-defense'. 

 Several hours later a senior IDF intelligence officer told the Times of London that Israel actually preferred that Assad remain in power: 'Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos, and extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there'.

Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon

 This should not come as a surprise. The Israeli intelligence assessment is that if Assad falls, Syria will fracture into 'cantons' controlled by various communities Alawites and Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, and the Kurds with Jihadist warlords and their forces, without any central control. In the midst of this pandemonium and a likely bloodbath, what will become of the Syrian army's large arsenal of chemical weapons and missiles?  From the Israeli point of view, the Assad regimes of Hafez and Bashar, have managed to keep the lid on and preserved the cease-fire along the Golan Heights. What has upset this delicate balance is Bashar Assad's decision to start sending 'game changing' weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon in return for Hezbollah fighters now stationed in Syria. Israel will not tolerate this move by Assad, and intervened last January. Assad apparently got that message but has now tried again. Again, Israel responded on May 3 and May 5. With the 'help' of a U.S. Pentagon official, Assad was forced to respond publically, Israel did not back down, and the Russians are now involved on Assad's side and 'Bob's your uncle'. How to defuse the current situation? Senior Israeli officials have just clarified that Israel not only does not want to get involved in Syria, but actually prefers that Assad remain in power rather than al Qaeda or other Muslim fanatics. Assad has indicated that he is in no position to take on Israel at this time, so if he stopped trying to send dangerous weapons to Hezbollah, Israel would have no reason to launch air strikes on Syria. Presumably Netanyahu conveyed this message to Putin when they met in Sochi on May 13. If so, can Putin persuade Assad to stop shipping weapons to Hezbollah? The Russian leader certainly has the leverage to do so. If this assessment does not hold water and Russia does send the S-300 missiles to Syria, Israel, which views such a step as a threat to her vital security interest, may very well strike. 

 But then there's Iran... 

 Why did Assad risk getting into hot water with Israel by sending lethal weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon? The answer is likely to be found with his Iranian ally. The Iranians are interested in stirring the pot as much as they can, and that includes strengthening Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. It would appear that Tehran urged Assad to ship some of his most sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah. What Assad didn't count on is that Israel's intelligence would detect this gambit. If so, who has greater influence on Assad these days, Russia or Iran? But you can bet Iran's leaders are rubbing their hands over the focus of international attention now on Syria and not on their nuclear weapons program.    

David Essing

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