As the bloody Syrian civil war appears to near a climax, the big winners after more than half a decade of carnage and confusion may rate as something of a surprise: Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
That may not be obvious given some recent events, including the gains made by the Jewish state’s mortal enemy, Iran, inside Syria and the recent accidental downing of a Russian plane by ground fire that Moscow has blamed on Israel. (An Israeli sortie apparently sparked the defensive barrage, hitting the Russian plane and killing its crew of 15.)
But with the election of President Trump and the consequent shift to an American foreign policy of strength and forcefulness after the disastrously indecisive Obama years, the situation on the ground and in the skies above Syria has dramatically changed. And it is Israel that is coming out on top.
Despite the multiyear infomercial for the new capabilities of Russia’s armed forces and its weapons systems the war has provided, the world was reminded recently that the Kremlin’s military was deployed not to oppose Western troops in the Syrian civil war, at least not in a direct sense.
The only two times Russia went directly up against American-produced weaponry, in fact, things did not turn out too well for Moscow. There was the November 2015 shoot-down of a Russian attack aircraft by a Turkish F-16 and the subsequent death of the pilot on the ground. The second was the aforementioned destruction of the Russian IL-20 reconnaissance platform by “Syrian” (read Russian) operators, who supposedly were outfoxed by an Israeli F-16.
The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon is 1970s technology, while the Russian defenses also dated back to the Soviet years. But the point still was made, and the optics were not great for Moscow. All of the supposed marketing value of seeing the Russian weapons systems in action went right out the window.
Iran was supposed to buy boatloads of Russian weapons, using the money shoveled at it under Mr. Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal and the billions more to be made as U.S. and international sanctions on Tehran came off. But with Mr. Trump pulling out of the deal and reimposing those sanctions, that has all gone up in smoke.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called out Israel after the shoot-down, claiming it was Israel’s fault that the aircraft was hit. He is threatening to send his ally Mr. Assad the vaunted S-300 long-range anti-aircraft weapons system to sharply curtail future Israeli sorties over Syrian skies. Many analysts believe Syria already has the weapons system in place.
But it should be clear to all sides that even the introduction of the S-300 defenses will not make Israel back down, especially if it feels its interests are in danger and that Iran is on the march. On the contrary, Israel will work even harder to defeat the new challenge.
We will soon have a real-time contest between old U.S. technology and current Russian weapons know-how. I know which side I would take in that bet.
The larger point is that the Syrian fighting has shown beyond doubt that the Trump administration has Israel’s back, without condition or qualification. This White House believes the “fingers of Iran” are on most of America’s security problems around the world.
Mr. Trump and his advisers believe the Palestinian problem could be solved if Iran drops its backing of Hamas and Hezbollah. They believe the Syrian war could best be resolved with the fall of the regime in Tehran and that a host of terror-related problems in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and the West would go away as well.
With Mr. Trump and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton inexorably increasing sanctions on Iran’s ruling mullahs, driving their oil exports to zero, it is only a matter of time before the pressure on Iran relieves the pressure on Israel.
It is instructive to recall that Mr. Netanyahu foresaw all of this in his address to Congress in 2015, a speech that was ardently opposed by the Obama White House and fans of the Iran nuclear deal.
The scorecard so far: Israel has not been drawn into the Syrian quagmire, it has a friend in Washington who is neutering its archenemy in Tehran, and its armed forces have seen their reputation enhanced in a clash with vaunted Russian technology. All in all, a pretty good result for Mr. Netanyahu.
Ronald Reagan famously said, “The best war is the one not fought.” Israel’s obvious dominance in the region will go a long way to making that statement ring true.
⦁ L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, The New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached at LToddWood.com.