"A nd if there would have been Russian soldiers there?” Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu asked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman during his visit to Israel last week. Shoigu, the military strongman who’s viewed as a potential heir to Putin, was referring to the Israeli Air Force attack against Syrian SA-5 antiaircraft batteries that fired on Israeli jets during a reconnaissance mission in Lebanon. He was also voicing the Russians’ exasperation at having learned about the Israeli foray in real time, with no advance warning to evacuate their forces.

“Stop attacking Syrian air defense systems; otherwise we’ll supply them with other, more advanced capabilities,” Shoigu then said. He justified Russia’s support for Assad with claims that the regime is preventing a much worse scenario, which could easily set the Israeli border aflame.

Shoigu’s concerns for the Russian soldiers are justified; there is barely a combat unit in Syria without a Russian presence, a fact that is not lost on Israel. Indeed, one year ago, Israel mounted an attack near the Palmyra airport, fully aware that a Russian facility existed in close proximity to the target. After that attack, Russia sent an irate message to Lieberman, and the Israeli ambassador in Moscow was summoned together with the IDF military attaché for a scolding.

Yet Israel isn’t likely to ignore Syrian aggression, even if the Russians are less than pleased with their response. Discussing the recent trickle of fire, former defense minister Moshe Yaalon told me last week that “it is imperative to preserve our interests. Our policy was not to intervene in the events in Syria, and that strategy proved itself. Still, we did take action — but it was quiet, and that’s how it should continue.”

While some newspaper headlines painted the recent unrest on the northern border as an ominous sign, a security source was much more restrained when he told me this week that these events don’t necessarily indicate any dramatic changes in the policies of Israel, Syria, or Lebanon. In the tense atmosphere that hovers over the Syrian and Lebanese borders, he said, both sides need to occasionally launch a trial balloon and check how the other side will respond. That translates as Syria wanting to know how much Israel is willing to absorb without responding, while Hezbollah observes from the sidelines, learning and reaching conclusions.

For its part, Israel is also gauging the limits of the Syrians, Russians, and Hezbollah, even as it endeavors to preserve open skies. Just as volleys of rocket fire and shelling from Syria into the Golan Heights have become a matter of course, Israeli reactions have also become routine, thus far, without eliciting a counter-response. The most recent exchanges of fire are no different. IAF jets last week left on a mission over southern Lebanon. According to IDF estimations, the Syrians fired antiaircraft missiles at the jets with the knowledge and support of the Russians. In response, Israel raided the antiaircraft batteries, destroying the system’s control center, but dealing a relatively light blow.

Is there any clear winner in this lethal game of cat and mouse? That’s hard to say — but it’s clear that everyone involved has a firm grasp of the rules of engagement. The Syrians understand that every belligerent act on their part will provoke an Israeli counterattack; Hezbollah realizes that any initiative targeting Israeli military forces will garner a harsh response; and the Russians are sitting quietly and taking notes, analyzing the limits of Israel’s patience. Israel, too, is checking to see just how far it can go in its attacks against Syrian targets without angering the Russians too much — and now it has learned that Russia will turn a blind eye to an Israeli raid against Syrian antiaircraft missiles that try to shoot down Israeli recon jets.

In the past, Israel has demanded that the Russians remove Iranian forces from Syria, and that any final cease-fire agreement on Syria must accommodate Israel’s red lines, including cleansing Syria of all Hezbollah and Iranian forces. Russia instead offered a buffer zone in southern Syria, a few dozen kilometers from the border of the Golan Heights.

In talks conducted in Israel, Shoigu said Moscow would be willing to demand that Iran refrain from actively endangering Assad and his regime by opening another front against Israel in Syrian territory. He also agreed that such a demand would include, for example, agreements on the type of arms that Iran would be allowed to position in Syria, or limitations on the sites where those arms would be deployed. Since both countries have an interest in preserving the Assad regime, there’s a good chance Iran might agree to these stipulations. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 682)