With fall of Aleppo, Russia ever-more pivotal for Israel


Five years ago, senior Israeli intelligence officials were confidently predicting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had weeks left in power, if not days.

Since then, the situation on the battlefields of Syria have confounded the most seasoned experts on that sad land over and over again.

A few months ago, the prevailing opinion was that Syria was on its way to inevitable partition, with Assad, helped by his Russian and Iranian allies, holding on to a rump state comprised of the coastal strip and the area around Damascus, while the rest of the country would be carved up in to enclaves ruled by Sunni and Kurdish militias – and, of course, Daesh.

The imminent collapse of the last rebel-held pockets in eastern Aleppo and the inaction of the international community in the face of reports of atrocities against civilians there mean that intelligence services are once again re-thinking the big picture.

It’s still too early to predict a complete recovery of the Assad regime: too many parts of the country are still under the control of forces opposed to him.

While regime soldiers were moving into neighbourhoods of Aleppo which held out for four long bitter years, in the east of the country, Daesh was recapturing the ancient town of Palmyra, which the regime had “liberated” with much media fanfare less than nine months ago.

But the bottom line is that Assad now controls Syria’s five main cities, the border-crossings to Lebanon and is in a prime position to start pressing the main rebel pocket around Idlib, near the Turkish border. Russia, Iran and Hizbollah have saved him and, for now, his regime seems safe.

Israel will now have to work even harder to safeguard its interests in Syria.

Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman have now acknowledged that Israel carried out strikes against Hizbollah to prevent them transferring advanced weapons to their arsenals in Lebanon.

The Lebanese Shia movement has lost at least 1,600 men in Syria but has gained valuable military experience, operating in a wide variety of battlefields alongside Syrian, Russian and Iranian officers.

All this makes the diplomatic and military coordination channels with Russia all the more important. Mr Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin understand each other’s interests well.

Mr Putin wants to preserve Russia’s military presence on the Mediterranean and keep his puppet Assad in power. Israel needs to keep Hizbollah in check and prevent them from establishing a foothold across its border on the Golan.

Russia will allow Israel to strike at Hizbollah in Syria when its interests are jeopardised but at the same time will work with Hizbollah to help keep Assad in power.

There is no love lost for Assad in Jerusalem, quite the opposite; but as long as Russia is the only major international player willing to deploy its forces to Syria, Israel has no choice but to play along with the Kremlin.


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