After six years of waging a secret war against Hizbollah arms convoys in Syria, the Israeli leadership is suddenly much more open about its operations across the northern borders.
For the first time since the Syrian conflict began, Israel took direct responsibility for an air strike in the early hours of last Friday morning against Hizbollah targets in the north of the war-torn country.
The interception of a large anti-aircraft missile launched by the Syrians at the Israeli jets has led to a war of words between Syria and Israel and placed a question mark over Russia’s future policy in the region.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks ago in Moscow and demanded that Iran and Hizbollah be prevented from maintaining a military presence in Syria once the civil war has calmed down.
Mr Putin’s response was unclear but, on Friday morning, after Israel took responsibility for the attack, Israel’s ambassador in Moscow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry where he was reportedly told the IDF no longer had freedom to act in Syrian airspace.
Syria’s UN envoy then claimed the Russians would not allow Israel to continue operating in his country.
The Russian government, however, has not formally expressed any position.
On Tuesday, during his visit to China, Mr Netanyahu denied Moscow had imposed any form of limitation on Israel’s operations and it would indeed continue attacking Hizbollah when it believed they were moving arms to Lebanon. Both Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot made similar statements.
While the latest escalation in rhetoric may not have been planned in advance, it is coming at the beginning of a period of transition in Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been bolstered by Russia and is now more confident of surviving in the long term. Mr Assad is anxious to reassert his sovereignty, even at the price of a clash with Israel. His allies, Iran and its proxy, Hizbollah, are trying to solidify their presence in the country while Israel is insistent on preventing the creation of a “Shia crescent” which would allow Hizbollah to move strategic weapons systems to its strongholds in Lebanon.
Nitzan Nuriel, a former IDF Brigadier-General and head of the counter-terrorism bureau in the National Security Council, said on Monday that “Syria’s options of attacking Israel are very limited” but he warned that, at the same time, “Israel has only limited influence over the war in Syria and developments will depend very much on what Hizbollah does.”
In recent weeks, Israeli generals have issued warnings that in any case of war with Hizbollah, Israel will see the Lebanese government as responsible and will attack local infrastructure and symbols of government. This is not a new strategy but the flurry of statements to this effect are a sign of growing nervousness.
The two main unknowns are Mr Putin’s position and that of the new US administration. With any connection between Washington and Moscow now the subject of intense scrutiny by the FBI and the US media, reaching understandings with Russia will be difficult.
In the short term, Israel wants to preserve the freedom to operate it has had in Syria, with the quiet agreement of the Russians. In the long term, it hopes to get American support for a wider push against Iranian influence in the region, perhaps with support from Turkey and Arab-Sunni governments like the Saudis and Egypt. The key, for now, is in the Kremlin.