TEL AVIV, Israel — American failure to militate against a Syrian regime deploying chemical weapons, barrel bombs and creating a deluge of refugees the Iranian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, chemical weapon-abusing, barrel bomb-dropping, refugee-inducing regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has all but paved the way for Moscow to reassert a Soviet-like presence in the war-wracked country and the warm Mediterranean waters beyond.
That, in a nutshell, is the widely held assessment of Israeli policymakers and experts here, who blame Washington for creating yet another layer of complexity in Israel's operations against Hezbollah, the Tehran-sponsored Lebanese Shiite organization battling on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
"The American eagle has failed miserably against the Syrian lion," a senior Israeli officer said of Assad, Arabic for lion. "Now we all have to contend with the Russian bear, which appears to be here to stay with boots and everything else on the ground, in the air and at sea."
The officer and others interviewed insisted that the sudden operational need to engage tactically with Russia will never develop into anything like the strategic cooperation Israel has institutionalized over decades with its preeminent patron in Washington. Experts here also expressed empathy for the hard choices US President Barack Obama has had to make in a politically divisive domestic climate, decisions which, in retrospect, have adversely affected US influence in Syria and the region.
That said, more than three years after Russia stepped in to act on Obama's red lines regarding the regime's use of chemical weapons — and amid increasingly impotent calls for Assad to step aside — experts here note that Israel and Washington's closest European allies are looking again to Russian President Vladimir Putin to impose order in the country still known as Syria, but increasingly controlled by Sunni Islamic radicals from the Nusra Front and the Islamic State.
With aerial and satellite imagery attesting to an unabated Russian buildup of manpower, facilities and front-line materiel in Syria, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered overt support for Moscow's muscle-flexing.
"I strongly welcome the fact … about the growing military engagement of Russia in the region," Steinmeier said at a Sept. 20 joint press conference in Berlin with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
A day later, amid confirmation of yet another Russian aerial deployment to Syria's coastal airport in Latakia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to Moscow with senior military leaders in attempts to secure "a joint mechanism for preventing misunderstandings" between Israeli and Russian forces.
As a result of the Sept. 21 Putin-Netanyahu meeting, it was decided that vice chiefs of staff from the respective militaries would meet in early October to devise a detailed mechanism for so-called deconfliction "in the aerial, naval and electro-magnetic realm," an Israeli official said.
In a statement following his meeting at the Kremlin, Netanyahu flagged "the importance of preventing misunderstandings" with Russian forces that may be operating in close proximity to Israeli forces. In a not-so-cryptic reference to multiple attacks on weapon convoys, weapon depots and sources of fire directed at Israel from Syrian soil in recent years, Netanyahu said he impressed upon Putin that Israel would not allow Iran-backed Hezbollah to open "a second terror front" against Israel on the Golan Heights.
"Israel is taking action and when it does, it is important for everyone, including Russia, to know how we are taking action. It is no less important in order to prevent misunderstandings, and it is worthwhile to do so before they occur and not afterward."
Such deconfliction will be increasingly necessary, Israeli sources said, given Russia's fortified naval presence in the area.
On Sept. 24, Russia's Ministry of Defense announced it would conduct extensive, month-long live-fire drills in the eastern Mediterranean, "including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets."
In its statement, the ministry noted that the exercise had been planned for nearly a year, and was not linked to the current crisis in Syria, yet most here viewed it as yet another show of muscle flexing by Moscow.
Ya'akov Amidror, a retired Israeli major general and former national security adviser to Netanyahu, insisted that planned deconfliction mechanisms are tactical and do not imply any agreement on Israel's part for strategic coordination with Russia.
"In areas where more than one state is operating in the same theater, you need deconfliction," he said.
According to Amidror, the "vacuum" created by American policies in the region has allowed — even compelled — Russia to reassert itself. "This is a new reality that we all must internalize," he said.
"It doesn't mean we're giving license to Assad and his murderous, Iranian-backed regime. But we need the Russians to understand that our interests in Syria are very narrow. We can't allow the Syrians and the Iranians to move game-changing weapons to Hezbollah or to build the infrastructure to attack us."
Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry's longtime director of policy and political military affairs, estimates that Assad controls barely 25 percent of Syria's once sovereign territory, with the Islamic State battling the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front for control of the Golan.
"To our north, there is a country that was once called Syria. But Syria has disappeared. There is no Syria, and I don't think it ever will return," Gilad said.
Dima Adamsky, associate professor at Herzliya Inter-Disciplinary Center's Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, said Putin seeks to play a constructive role in the chaos that is Syria and the region beyond. In an article in Foreign Affairs and a subsequent interview last week, Adamsky said he expected Putin to push for a UN mandate to forge and help secure a diplomatic solution for Syria which, despite US objections, will include Assad and Iran.
Beyond Putin’s desire to regain a foothold in the region and fortify Assad, a strategic ally, Adamsky cited Russia’s "very real strategic concern" in stemming the spread of Islamic jihadists who may return to wage insurgencies in Russia and its interests in Central Asia and the North CaucasusCaucusus.
Moreover, Moscow's buildup in Syria allows it to cultivate new alliances and arms markets in the region while rehabilitating its pariah status in the West due to land grabs in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Adamsky also cited Russia's new naval doctrine, published earlier this year, which prescribes a permanent presence in the Mediterranean, with the naval facility at Syria's port town of Tartus playing a critical role.
"Syria used to be the Soviet naval center of gravity during the late Cold War, from which it launched actions vis a vis the US Sixth Fleet. It's now the only overseas base of the Russian Navy outside of the Russian Federation, and a resurged presence there is definitely part of their plan," he said.
According to the Russian expert, who routinely plays the role of Putin in wargame exercises in Israel, Russia's return to the region is unstoppable, and it is up to Washington, NATO, Israel and others in the region to adapt their policies accordingly.
"Putin is here to stay… Russia's doctrine prescribes a penetration into warm Mediterranean waters, a foothold in the Middle East and this will force Israel, the US, Turkey and other actors to rearrange and rethink how they've been engaging Syria since the end of the Cold War," he said.
By his military buildup in Syria, Putin is making "a seemingly very elegant move" that could prove beneficial over time, Adamsky said.
"It enables him to address several issues across different domains: He fortifies Assad, battles the Islamic States, sustains arms and energy markets, and is in a position to open new relationships and alliances in the region. And through the Russian Orthodox church, he can portray himself as the savior of the persecuted Christian minority in the region."
At the same time, he noted that Putin "is probably aware of the limits of power projection and the risks of intervention."
He added that Moscow is mindful of not overextending itself "as the US did in the region and as Russia itself did in Afghanistan, Chechnya Chechna and now in Ukraine."