[Is Isaiah 17 on the horizon?]
“Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation,” according to the report.
The Crisis Group’s report, “Israel, Hezbollah and Iran: Preventing Another War in Syria,” was released on Thursday. It is the result of a year’s worth of interviews by researchers for the organization with diplomats and defense officials in Jerusalem, Tehran, Beirut, Washington, Moscow and Amman, Zalzberg told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, ahead of its publication.
As the Crisis Group also functions as an advocacy organization, it has not only released this report to the public, but has been working directly with Russia to try to persuade it to accept the role of mediator between Israel, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.
The report does not indicate that a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is imminent, as both sides currently see value in maintaining a relative calm, but implies that as the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis wrests back full control over the country, the Lebanese terrorist group could start antagonizing Israel from southern Syria, where it enjoys something of an advantage, as it has few significant assets in that area for the Israel Defense Forces to strike.
Hearing from the various parties, the Crisis Group analysts came to the disconcerting conclusion that the sides do not have a clear understanding of each other’s concerns and desires, which raises the potential for the kind of miscalculation that leads to war, Zalzberg said.
For instance, he said, Israel does not see Hezbollah and Syria as being independent actors, with their own goals, but as little more than “marionettes” controlled by Iran — a view that is not shared by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or Russia.
Unlike in the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah when the fighting was primarily limited to northern Israel and southern Lebanon, the view of both Israeli and Hezbollah officials is that the next conflict between the two groups would also include fighting in Syria.
Zalzberg added that Russia might like to see a small-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah, as Moscow could further improve its international status by negotiating a ceasefire.
However, it realizes that since the prevailing view is that any sustained fighting between the two would likely devolve into all-out war — with Hezbollah firing upwards of a thousand rockets and missiles a day at Israel, while the IDF pounds it back with strikes from the air, sea and ground — all conflict between the two sides should be avoided.
Backing Assad has put Moscow on the same side as the Syrian despot’s other main supporters, Iran and Hezbollah, a fact that leaves Israeli officials decidedly wary of their Russian counterparts.
The Crisis Group report quotes an unnamed Israeli foreign ministry official as saying, “It’s hard to trust them. They tell us they are not selling weapons to Hizbollah, but we know for a fact that they do. Their policies are cynical. They are not an enticing mediator.”
According to defense analysts, fighting alongside Russian troops has also helped turn Hezbollah into a more effective terrorist army with better tactics, strategies and the aforementioned weapons.
This came as a shocking blow to the Israeli Air Force, which had, until then, enjoyed unquestioned aerial superiority in the region, and required Jerusalem and Moscow to set up a hotline to prevent any potential conflicts between the two militaries.
The border area has naturally been of significant concern for Israel, which is loath to see Hezbollah set up military positions along the Golan Heights to join the significant infrastructure it has already put in place in southern Lebanon.