Russia Risks a Showdown With Israel over Hezbollah in Syria

Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a news conference at the Kremlin, Moscow, June 7. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool/Reuters

Back in 1967, Moscow shrugged when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, cutting shipping routes to the Israeli port of Eilat—Israel’s only one in the Red Sea. Egyptian and Syrian troop movements on the Israeli border — coupled with Nasser’s fiery rhetoric  threatening mass slaughter — paved the way for war. All the while, Moscow fed the Egyptians and Syrians erroneous information about Israeli troop movements.  

The Israelis put an end to all of it with a blitzkrieg that neutralized Russia’s Arab clients in six days, and in the process seized  the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and much of the Golan Heights.  

Fifty years later and history looks set to repeat itself. Russia’s allies are again provoking the Israelis, who may ultimately see little choice but to strike first. The ensuing war, Israel warns, could, like the Six Day War in 1967, fundamentally change the region.

The theater this time is Syria, but the precipitating factor for the next conflict — believe it or not — isn’t Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. It is Iran’s most lethal proxy, Hezbollah.

Read more: Inside the Kremlin’s plan to become the Middle East’s new power broker

Tehran dispatched Hezbollah to buttress Assad’s beleaguered Syrian troops. The first Arab child of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the Lebanese Shiite militant organization have deployed thousands of fighters to Syria, who are now gaining valuable experience from the war.  

Iran is also arming Hezbollah in preparation for the next conflict with Israel. In fall 2015, Israel’s military assessed that Hezbollah had increased its rocket arsenal from an estimated 100,000 to roughly 150,000 since the Syrian war began.

Later that year, the Russians began to carry out airstrikes against rebel groups fighting to oust Assad from Syria. Moscow had long provided Assad with arms and other provisions via its Mediterranean naval facility in Tartus. But the Russians soon deployed ground and air forces, intelligence assets, and heavy hardware to protect the Assad regime, making it clear that Syria was part of its ever-expanding sphere of influence.

Russia soon established fusion centers so that it could coordinate its war effort with Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime. Hezbollah has benefited from Russian air cover, and even fought alongside Russian forces against Syrian rebels.

Meanwhile Iran and its Lebanese proxy have tried to exploit both the Russian presence and the fog of war to move what Israelis have called “game-changing weapons” from the war zone to Lebanon. Israeli officials say the weapons they are attempting to acquire include long-range and high payload rockets, lethal anti-ship missiles, and perhaps even sophisticated anti-aircraft systems.

These weapons have prompted a distinct sense of alarm inside Israel’s Kiriya, their Pentagon. Officials say the hardware would reduce the Israeli edge significantly when the next war erupts, which is why Israel has so far launched some three-dozen airstrikes throughout Syria, according to one senior Israel official

It’s unclear if these sorties represent the entirety of the Israeli effort. But we do know that the drama came into full focus in March when the Syrian army fired anti-aircraft weapons at Israeli aircraft after they struck what was believed to be yet another Hezbollah weapons convoy inside Syria. The anti-aircraft missile hurtled toward Israeli territory, prompting the Israelis to use its medium-range Arrow missile defense system.

The Arrow incident has led to an escalation in the war of words. Damascus has threatened that future incursions will prompt Scud attacks, and even warned that Russia will come to their aid if the Israelis strike again.

It is doubtful that Russia would fire on an Israeli aircraft, especially given that the Israelis have paid multiple visits to Moscow to ensure that their air force can continue to strike Iranian and Hezbollah assets when required.

The longer Iran and Hezbollah have to perfect their weapons smuggling infrastructure, the higher the likelihood of a successful transfer of “game changing weapons.” Hezbollah already has tens of thousands of rockets but a successful transfer of more advanced weapons would be a red line for Israel, prompting a pre-emptive strike before those weapons can be deployed.

The Israelis have warned repeatedly that the next war with Hezbollah could be one in which Israel will seek nothing less than total defeat and ousting of Hezbollah from Lebanon.

Vladimir Putin’s foray into Syria has been described as an attempt to resurrect Russia’s past. But Soviet actions in the Middle East contributed inexorably to the Six Day War and its own weakening in the region. Russia risks repeating the mistakes it made a half century ago, mistakes that still have a profound impact on the region today.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.