What’s Putin’s game in Syria?
About the only thing clear regarding the latest round of military encounters between Israel and Syria is that it’s serious.
For the first time since the Syrian civil war began six years ago, the Israeli government acknowledged last Friday that it conducted airstrikes inside Syria. In the past, when Israel apparently launched similar strikes to prevent Hezbollah militants from receiving sophisticated arms supplies from Iran, the IDF did not comment, presumably to discourage Damascus from responding. This time Syria responded with a missile strike of its own; it did no damage other than shake up the relative complacency among those Israeli officials who believed Syria was too busy with its civil war to present a threat to Israel.
What’s curious and worrisome is the role of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has played a clever strategic game, filling the vacuum left by the United States as a key player in the Syrian civil conflict since President Barack Obama decided this was not America’s war. Putin sent manpower and backed Bashar Assad in the Syrian president’s desperate attempt to hold onto power by defeating ISIS and a mix of anti-Assad fighters. The result is that hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled, and the bloodshed goes on. With it all, Israel has managed to stay out of the fighting so close to its border, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves credit for navigating among the combatants. It is widely believed that he and Putin have had an understanding — with Russia preventing the fighting from spilling over into Israel, and Jerusalem agreeing to lie low.
But last Friday’s flare-up took place only days after Netanyahu’s most recent visit to Moscow. Does that mean the prevailing status quo no longer holds? Did Syria act on its own, or is Russia now signaling approval for Syria to engage Israel militarily? Neither Jerusalem nor Moscow had much to say about the talks the two leaders held.
The confusion underscores the powerful role Putin plays in the Mideast of late, with the U.S. conspicuously absent. What makes things more confusing is that while President Donald Trump has focused on bolstering the U.S. military and talking tough about decimating ISIS, he has also been mysteriously and counterintuitively benign, if not praiseworthy, about Putin. So what happens now? Will the president act in Syria, and if so, what form will it take? At the moment, this situation only seems to bolster the theory that Putin “has something” on Trump that keeps him at bay.
If Israelis have assumed that their northern border is relatively secure, despite the horrific warfare taking place a few miles away, inside Syria, that is no longer the case. The sound of Israel’s missile-defense system taking out the Syrian missile last week was loud enough to be heard in Jerusalem. And the impact of that confrontation continues to reverberate.