With the 2016 US elections looming, the leaders of Israel and the US both gain from friendly talks this week.
The destruction of Syria has sparked the diplomatic and military equivalent of a feeding frenzy. Israel is not least among the players in this whirlwind game.
“Syria is a dead state, and Israel must understand this and prepare accordingly,” Amos Gilad, the powerful director of the political security division in Israel’s defence ministry, recently explained. “[Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s grip on the country is faltering. It is a land without rule.”
The Russian campaign to be the main arbiter of Syria’s future offers Israel both opportunities and challenges. Israel is seeking to strengthen and protect, and if possible, expand its power to confront the anarchy on its northern border.
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An early verdict suggests that Israel – with Russia itself and the Assad regime – is one of the winners of the Russian initiative.
Israeli and Russia are not simply “de-conflicting”. They are “coordinating” in Syrian airspace. A well-informed Arab diplomat with wide-ranging regional experience explained to me that Israel and Russia are conducting joint reconnaissance and intelligence gathering and evaluation over Syria.
“The planes are flying together. Information is relayed to the Russian centre at Latakia, where it is evaluated and passed on to Israel,” he said.
Such advantages are, however, tempered by challenges.
On the critical strategic level, the Russian deployment means that Israel’s long-standing demand for freedom of military action in the region has become yet more complicated.
Control of the airspace over its enemies – in an arc spanning over thousands of kilometres – has long been at the heart of Israel’s expansive security doctrine.
Israel’s forgiving response to Russian violations of Israel’s airspace highlights the good relations between the two countries. Left unsaid was the obvious comparison with Turkey’s aggressive response to Russian infractions.
Constraints on Israel’s air operations first appeared during the Gulf War when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was compelled by Washington not to respond to Saddam’s threats of Scud attacks on Tel Aviv.
More recently, with the pressure from US President Barack Obama, the White House contributed to a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Today Russian aircraft are flying combat missions just seconds away from Israel’s metropolitan heartland for the first time since Russian pilots engaged the Israeli air force in combat over Egypt during the War of Attrition that followed the Six-Day War.
In addition, Moscow’s decision to deploy S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries in Syria has established the infrastructure for a Russian “no fly zone” over an area that includes Israel north and east of Tel Aviv, Cyprus, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stronghold of Raqqa.
No wonder why, as soon as Israel got wind of the Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria, Netanyahu and his senior military and intelligence advisers hopped on a plane to Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu are like cougars in a cage, wary of each other but determined to establish a mutually beneficial working relationship.
Since their first meeting in September, Netanyahu has won Putin’s recognition of long-standing core Israeli security interests in Syria and the means by which it protects them.
“During our meeting in Moscow,” Netanyahu recently explained, “I stood up for our principles: Israel attacks whoever attacks it. We will not allow Iran to transfer deadly weapons to Hezbollah from Syrian territory, or at least we will do everything in our power to prevent it; and we will not allow Iran to open an additional terrorist front against us in the Golan.”
In a series of ongoing discussions that continue at senior levels, the alliance on Syria is maturing. There are multiple dimensions to this effort: in their first meeting in September and in subsequent talks since then, the clarity over guiding policies for both parties has been achieved.
A working system of political and military consultation has been established, at both operational and senior military and intelligence levels. “Rules of the game” being played by Netanyahu and Putin in Syria continue to be refined and expanded.
The “rules of the game” include the following. Moscow accepts Israel’s demand to oppose the creation of a “second front” on the Golan Heights by Iran and Hezbollah, and it accepts Israel’s continuing military operations to prevent this. Moscow recognises and accepts Israel’s freedom of action to pre-empt the supply from Syria of weapons to Hezbollah.
No doubt Moscow’s allies in Beirut and Tehran will want an explanation as to how Putin intends to reconcile the contradictory objectives of its Israeli and Iranian/Hezbollah allies.
In operational terms, Israeli planes continued to fly unchallenged – probably throughout Syrian airspace and not only along the Golan frontier – “cooperating” with Russia and “de-conflicting” with Washington.
In recent days, a major Israeli military exercise was announced, offering a real world opportunity to put joint understandings to an operational test. Netanyahu declared himself “very satisfied” with the new relationship, and Putin confirmed this positive assessment.
Israel’s forgiving response to Russian violations of Israel’s airspace (probably over the occupied Golan Heights) highlights the good relations between the two countries. Left unsaid was the obvious comparison with Turkey’s aggressive response to Russian infractions.
In another practical test of the new understandings, Israel also continues to hit Hezbollah efforts to transport arms via Syria. During the last week of November, there were reports that Israel carried out four air strikes on the Syrian regime and Hezbollah positions in the area of Syria’s Qalamoun mountains.
Cooperation with the Russian air campaign necessarily signals that Israel has moved far more explicitly than has previously been the case in the pro-Damascus, anti-opposition column. By doing so, Jerusalem joins not only allies in Amman and Cairo, but also enemies in Dahiya, Baghdad and Tehran in the bloody contest for Damascus.
In the process, Syria has become yet another arena of disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem. Obama continues to oppose Putin’s initiative and anxiously predicts its failure. The US’ refrain, most recently declared by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter: “We can’t associate ourselves with what they’re doing now because it’s doomed to fail.”
Israel, on the other hand, views Putin’s move on the whole as a positive step, and sees it as an opportunity to cement its interests in the post-Assad Syria.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.