In the Middle East, everything can change from minute to minute, and that's exactly what happened to Israel this week. It began with a violent escalation in the Syrian arena, continued with a violent escalation in the Gaza arena and tension in both arenas that lasted into Friday. But by Friday night things were taking a turn for the better. Three developments in the last few days - both on the Syrian and Gazan fronts - have significantly improved the security situation from an Israeli perspective.
The first improvement occurred on Friday, when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov went on CNN and announced that Russia is not exactly an ally of the Iranians and that Israel's security must also be taken into account. Such a statement by the Russian deputy foreign minister can be seen as a diplomatic turning point, in which Moscow corrects course after a stormy few months. For it was just on Tuesday that a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Israel's "arbitrary" attacks on Syria should stop. Three days later, and the same Foreign Ministry in Moscow – albeit via a higher rank than the spokeswoman – is singing from a new hymn sheet.
This aboutface is down to the fact that — as curious as it sounds — Russia needs Israel more than it needs Iran. The Russians have recently come to the realization that Israel is willing to go to the wire to thwart Iranian consolidation in Syria, the plan to improve Hezbollah's precision missiles in Lebanon, and the Iranian forces in Syria. The Israeli decision to end its veil of ambiguity over its Syria strikes definitely contributed to this realization.
The Russians have apparently come to the conclusion that the Iranians are dragging Israel into attacks in Syria, which could hamper Russia in fulfilling its strategic goal of stabilizing Bashar Assad's regime and starting to rebuild the war-battered country. The Russians are supposed to benefit from both the economic and political rehabilitation of Syria not become embroiled in a war between Israel and Iran.
Poking the bear
What really matters is that the Iranians need Russians far more than the Russians need the Iranians, not just regarding the civil war in Syria, but also the new sanctions imposed by the United States when it abandoned the nuclear agreement. Russia is the only country that allows Iran to export oil through it, while the other countries are barely doing so once the US decided to stop the sanction exmeptions it gave to eight states that buy Iranian oil. Russia is the only one of the eight countries to announce that it will continue to buy oil from Iran, and even sell it on the world market.
Meanwhile the European countries, which initially demonstrated a desire to help export Iranian oil despite US sanctions, are now abandoning Tehran one by one. Moreover, France, Britain, Germany, and other EU members have told the Iranians that if they do not stop developing long-range ballistic missiles, they will impose their own sanctions. In other words, in a few weeks' time Iran will be alone with the Russians, and its economy will largely depend on Russian goodwill.
The Kremlin apparently carried out a speedy situation assessment and decided on a change of course in the Mideast. While the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian military establishment do want to limit Israel's freedom in the skies, the Kremlin thinks that the Iranians have behaved badly of late. What apparently pushed the Russians into shifting their stance were reports that Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was spotted about 10 days ago on a tour in southern Syria, some 40 kilometers from the Israel-Syria border on the Golan Heights.
This was a blatant violation of Iran's commitment to Russia, and Putin's public declaration that the Iranians and their proxies would keep 80 kilometers from the Israeli border. Israel gave Russia public proof that the Iranians had broken their promise, which Putin apparently did not like that at all. He decided, therefore, against the advice of his military and diplomats, to let the Iranians know that they had to meet their commitments. Ultimately, he decided that Russia does not approve of the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
The announcement that, "Iran is not an ally of Russia in Syria" is a rather blunt u-turn in the pro-Iranian policy that the Russians adopted since September 2018, when a Russian plane was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft missile during an Israeli strike.
A base for success
Another positive development from Israel's point of view, also in the northern arena, is the Foreign Policy report that the US has decided to leave a small force at the al-Tanf base on the Syrian-Iraqi border, close to the Jordan frontier.
This site is actually an airport and the base of operations for US and UK special and air forces. Its main importance is its proximity to the central road leading from Baghdad to Damascus and from there to Lebanon. It is one of the two main arteries through which the Iranians have attempted to open a land corridor from Tehran to the Damascus area via Iraq, and from Damascus on to Lebanon.
The presence of the Americans and the British at the al-Tanf base allows the Western Allies to control the traffic along the main road, and prevent the Iranians from using the road freely as part of their prospective land. US President Donald Trump's decision to leave the al-Tanf base intact, with a small number of troops deployed there, means that the land corridor will still be blocked, which is certainly good news for Israel.
In the IDF, there was a real fear that the Americans would quit this base and the entire ground corridor would be open to the Revolutionary Guards to transfer people and weapons to Syria and Lebanon. It is reasonable to assume that Trump's decision to leave the base active stems not only from pressure from Israel but Jordan and Saudi Arabia too.
The third positive development for Israel is the agreement reached between Qatar and the United Nations with Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations for the transfer of Qatari money. Not only will money be transferred to Hamas, but most of the funding will be used by the UN to bankroll humanitarian projects throughout the Strip. The money means that Hamas can also bolster its own image and avoid any confrontation with other organizations in the Gaza Strip, while showing that it will not sell the resistance in exchange for its employees' salaries.
Israel can also claim that it will not pay protection money to Hamas and buy quiet at the border fence with Qatari money. We still need to see how this whole mechanism will work, but it is clear that the United Nations is the conduit through which humanitarian assistance should be provided to the Gaza Strip.
Hamas may have proven that it is less corrupt than Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, but it does not know how to govern or manage the Gaza Strip. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, on the other hand, have proven that they know how to govern and more or less manage civilian matters for the benefit of the population. It is difficult to say which is worse — a corrupt organization like Fatah but which has governance skills, or a less corrupt organization like Hamas, which has no ability to govern the Gaza Strip which it controls by force.
The only thing Hamas really knows how to do is take action against Israel, and it uses the citizens of the Gaza Strip for that purpose. It is fair to say, therefore, the transfer of funds with the help of the UN certainly benefits the security of Israel and the calm in the Gaza area.
One must remember, however, that just as the situation on the ground has shifted, it could all shift back again within the space of a day or even just a few hours.
Israelis live in an unstable region where many actors, including superpowers both large and regional, are constantly working to promote their own interests. In such a situation, stability is a scarce resource in the Middle East. Just as Israel should never rest on its laurels when things go well, it must also never panic when things take a turn for the worse on security. Israelis may live in a rough neighborhood but their home is well-protected.