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Russia Might Be Restraining Israel From More Action Against Iran

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. File photo
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. File photo

Israel’s 12-member security cabinet reportedly met on Sunday to discuss the situation in the country’s north, where tensions with Syria, Iranian forces and proxies is running high.

According to The Jerusalem Post, several ministers advocated military action during the meeting, having heard briefings from the security establishment, but no decisions were made.

The biggest confrontation between the two sides occurred on Saturday, when Israel attacked what it claimed to be Iranian bases, which sent a drone into its airspace.

During the air operation an Israeli F16 was shot down by intense Syrian antiaircraft missile fire. By one account nearly 20 Russian made missile were fired at Israeli planes.

Iran and its allies denied the drone accusation by Israel and since then Tehran has remained largely silent, avoiding the usual chest-thumping.

As the pilots parachuted to safety in Israel, a second wave of air attacks were launched to punish the Syrians and Iranians. This turned out to be the largest Israeli attack on targets in Syria since the civil war began in 2010.

Prior to all the action, Israeli officials had intensified their warnings about Iran’s growing power around Israel's borders.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is a member of the security cabinet, told a conference in Tel Aviv last week that action must be taken against the Islamic Republic directly. He compared the clerical regime to an octopus, whose tentacles were its proxies; Hezbollah and Hamas.

He argued that it is time to hurt the octopus itself and not waste time with the proxies, although he insisted he did not necessarily mean military action.

“I don’t necessarily mean armed conflict,” he maintained. “The war must be conducted through diplomacy, intelligence, preemptive efforts, technological means, economic sanctions and, if needed, other means.”

But he also made clear that Iran must get the message its “era of immunity” is over. “A rocket from Lebanon will be treated like an Iranian rocket. We will not waste our resources and energy fighting in Lebanese towns while you [Iran’s leaders] recline in your chair and watch,” Bennett underlined.

David Halbfinger, Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, writes that the February 10 clashes were not the end of possible hostilities; they were the beginning. Iran made big investments in the Syrian war and now it wants to get something in return.

What Tehran wants is bases in Syria from where it can threaten Israel – and Israel knows this. But he argues that Israel alone cannot stop Iran. How much can the U.S. or Russians help, remains an open question.

Moscow having won big in Syria has tried to remain neutral between the Israelis and the Iranians, but how long can it continue its delicate diplomacy?

Chagai Tzuriel, the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence told the NYT, the Russians “understand that the presence of Iranian military and Shiite militia in Syria has the potential to destroy all their gains. They don’t want that.”

Haarets newspaper notes that the Saturday Israeli attacks stopped immediately after Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke with Benjamin Netanyau. “Putin blew the whistle to stop the confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria and both sides accepted his decision”, the paper writes.

As the Trump administration is still trying to figure out what to do in the region, “Russia is dictating the way things are going. Moscow has invested too much effort and resources in saving Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in recent years to allow Israel to foil its strategic project. One can assume messages of this nature were conveyed during the phone call with Netanyahu”, says Haaretz.

While Israel still retains an ability to make the Syrian situation unpredictable for Russian and Iranians, the downing of its F-16 jet gave the Iranians a big propaganda win. Although it is not clear who was controlling the anti-aircraft missiles, the possibility remains that it was the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).