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Israeli-Russian Modus Operandi in Syria

(above) Israeli F-16 fighter jet, (below) Russian MiG-21R fighter jet)

Whatever you think of Israel's Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, you have to admit he has one of the toughest jobs in the world. Just look at what he has on his plate every morning he wakes up …

The U.S.

America, Israel's best friend, has, under President Barack Obama's leadership, has concocted a wacky deal with Iran, Israel's worst enemy. It will enable the Ayatollahs to produce nuclear weapons in 10 to 15 years or whenever. First Obama pressured Democratic Senators to swallow it hook, line and sinker - they do not even know what's in the 'secret clauses'. So now Bibi, who apparently does, must 'grin and bear it'. His only reasonable course of action is to restore his strained relations with the U.S. President and hopefully bolster Israel's security in the wake of Iran's nuclear ascendancy. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Barack will also agree to bury the hatchet, particularly with the American presidential election looming on the horizon. 

Iran

Apparently with the nuclear deal in his pocket, Ayatollah Khamenei has no qualms about declaring that Iran will see to Israel's destruction within the next 25 years. That's the long-term forecast from Tehran. In the meantime, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the UN's nuclear watchdog, has launched its secret investigation into whether or not the Iranians have been working on a nuclear weapon at their Parchin military base. But with all the international pressure weighing on IAEA chief Yakita Amano, could anyone really expect this watchdog would act like a Rottweiler rather than a Golden Retriever?

So just as predicted, Amano has permitted the Iranians to gather their own soil samples. (Nuclear research can leave traces in the soil for years). Amano has refused to even disclose if his inspectors were present when the Iranians did their own sampling. But don't worry - Amano was 'very sure' he could trust the Iranians to do it right and that the samples were 'authentic'! (It's like a known drug smuggler going through customs and told to check his own suitcase for drugs, or allowing Lance Armstrong to take his own urine tests!) This is not a joke by the way - a joke is meant to be funny. It's more of a farce - something that pretends to be serious but is obviously ludicrous.

But where there's a will there's a way, and give Obama credit, he almost never takes no for an answer. But who knows - the nuclear saga may not be over yet. Ayatollah Khamenei has declared the all-important sanctions must be lifted immediately and not gradually (to ensure Iran's continued compliance). Think about it - what if the Iranians stand by their demand to immediately ease all the sanctions. (Bear in mind, Khamenei has said the Majlis, Iran's parliament, will vote on the nuclear deal and he has not given the green light yet). If the Supreme Leader stands pat he would have Obama over the barrel because foreign firms, headed by Russia and China, are already signing new trade deals with Iran, and the rest of the international community is joining the line to cash in on the billions of dollars that will be flowing into Iranian bank accounts.

Of course the Iranians will not risk the deal they could not refuse from Obama. But they could manufacture a last minute hitch to squeeze out a new concession from the U.S. The Iranians know a thing or two about maximizing their profits. After Obama officials announced openly that the nuclear deal would be the administration's 'ObamaCare' of the second term, the shrewd Iranian negotiators may now be biding their time. I hope we are not going to hear Secretary John Kerry plaintively declare: 'Look we've come so far and this is so important let's go another extra mile and wrap it up’. In another words, give the Iranians something more. I'm not saying Washington will cave on the crucial sanctions clause itself, but the Iranians might eke out something else. Never underestimate their negotiating chicanery.

Russia

When Henry Kissinger succeeded 'in expelling' the Soviets from their stronghold in Egypt back in the 1970's, Prof. Bernard Lewis predicted: "The Russians will be back." Moscow has always desired a serious military presence in the Mediterranean for various geo-strategic reasons. But President Putin is also enjoying his sticking it to the Americans in Syria. In one respect he sees it as payback for America's diplomatic intervention in Ukraine, which Moscow views to be within its sphere of influence. Add to that, Putin's warning about America upgrading its nuclear missiles in Western Europe. It's all grist for the mill as a potential Cold War slowly warms up.

Hopefully, pragmatic heads on both sides will play it cool on the proverbial slippery slope. What I'm getting at is that the daunting Russian military buildup in Syria has nothing directly to do with Israel - Putin is simply propping up his client, Assad, who has allowed him to maintain a military base in Latakia and a key naval installation at Tartus. The Assad regime now controls only about 25% of the former Syria, mainly in parts of the Damascus area and along the Mediterranean coast. With the influx of Islamic State into the fray, the Assad regime was in dire straits, possibly even at risk of collapsing sooner rather than later. Putin has now signaled he will not allow this to happen - Assad stays and the U.S. must accept him as part of an eventual solution.

Enter Israel. As a matter of fact, the Jewish state has stayed out of the more than four-year-long civil war, except when it has spilled over. Its standing policy is to launch air strikes at shipments of 'game-changing weapons’, mainly anti-aircraft missiles via Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, from where it threatens Israel. Secondly, Israel will not tolerate 'accidental' cross border shelling from the Syrian war zone along the Golan Heights. Who ever is responsible for shelling, be it errant or deliberate, by the Syrian army or the rebels, Israel will shoot back immediately and in spades. The Israeli message is 'we're staying out of the Syrian civil war, and it had better stay out of Israel!'

So far, so good; but now that Russian fighter jets, helicopters and ground forces have been deployed in Syria, their proximity raises the specter of an accidental clash - primarily with Israeli air operations to hit those arms shipments to southern Lebanon. All Israel needs now is a military clash with the Russian superpower. And that is why Prime Minister Netanyahu, with the IDF Chief of Staff and the Intelligence Commander, hopped on a jet for Moscow to sit down with Putin and his military aides. Both Israel and Russia have no interest in crossing swords in Syria, so the two leaders agreed on a working team to prevent any miscalculations by either side. They agreed on a mechanism to maintain a modus operandi. Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has stated that the Jewish state will not relinquish its current 'freedom of action over Syria'. On one hand, Israel's two red lines stand, while on the other, the Jewish state will not try to topple Assad.

There is another twist to the new emerging situation between Israel and Russia. Moscow has announced it is going ahead with its long-standing sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. This is also a spin-off of the 5P+1 nuclear deal. Obviously, Iran will deploy these lethal weapons around its major nuclear sites, and they could present a dangerous threat to any Israeli aircraft conducting a strike. The S-300 sale to Iran has been in the pipeline for years, so it is safe to assume the Israeli Air Force has been devising counter measures to neutralize the threat.

On this score it is worth noting that after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned a hostile shoulder to Israel in his failed bid to become Sultan of the Arab world, Jerusalem concluded close ties with Greece, Turkey's mortal enemy. This relationship also includes a training relationship between the Israeli and Hellenic Air Forces. Guess what? It just so happens that the Greek Air Force bought S-300 missiles from Russia some years ago! Moreover, Greek and Israeli pilots recently conducted an intensive ten-day exercise in Greece. So you don't have to be a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the S-300 missile system played a key role in these war games - that is, how to neutralize them.

Let's go one step further - it is not far-fetched to surmise that just maybe the Israeli Air Force has devised tactics to overcome the S-300 threat. (In the first Lebanon War in 1982, Israeli jets destroyed 18 or 19 vaunted Soviet SAM missile batteries in the Bekaa Valley without losing a single aircraft.) Knowing this, the Russians could be just as eager as Israel to avoid an aerial clash over Syria in the near future -therefore, the pressing need to avert any misunderstandings. Let's hope that Obama and Putin will also be able to reaching some kind of logical arrangement over Syria and Ukraine when they meet shortly at the UN General Assembly session in New York.





 

David Essing

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