’Israeli’ Fears of a Russian Buffer
Since the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, the political and military establishment in Tel Aviv, along with "Israel's" analysts and the wider public, have been keeping a close eye on developments across the border.
Today, "Israel's" airwaves are saturated with analytics about Russia's alliance with Iran. And although opinions vary on a wide range of issues in accordance with local political loyalties, there appears to be a general consensus that the Iranian role in Syria - crucial in defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of that country - represents a threat to "Israeli" ‘national interests'.
Another generally shared acknowledgment among "Israel's" leftists, the right, the centrists, religious fundamentalists and Arab parties is that Moscow's decision to intervene in Syria established the cornerstone for its growing influence in the Middle East, and one that is gradually suppressing the role of Tel Aviv's main benefactor - the US.
Most "Israelis" are not exactly thrilled about the prospect of a Middle East where ‘the rules of the game are dictated by Moscow', primarily due to the existing strategic co-operation between the Russians, Iran and, increasingly, Lebanon's Hezbollah.
While there is no shortage of ‘expert opinion' in "Israel" arguing that Russia is more than happy with the growing strength of the Resistance Axis, which serves its own national interests by countering the US, there are also those who believe that Moscow can be persuaded to abandon its alliance with Tehran.
However, the recent shooting-down of the "Israeli" F-16 fighter jet by Syrian forces suggests that only the former is true, and that Russia's President Vladimir Putin has at the very least no real sympathy for "Israeli" ‘security concerns'. But it is also Moscow's increasingly cozy relationship with the Lebanese government that doesn't bode well for "Israeli" regional ambitions.
The Levant Basin
The discovery of one of the largest oil and gas fields in the world in over a decade has dramatically altered the geopolitical reality in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The 2010 find transformed "Israel" from barely even consuming natural gas to a major producer, now eyeing significant export opportunities.
But the massive reserves are not confined to "Israeli"-controlled waters and stretch into neighboring states - including Lebanon.
For Lebanon's debt-ridden economy, the discovery is a critical lifeline. The country, which is almost entirely reliant on imports to meet its energy demand and has one of the highest ratios of public debt to GDP in the world, is in dire need of the lucrative revenue that oil and gas would provide.
According to geophysical surveys conducted by the UK company, Spectrum, Lebanese waters could hold up to 25 trillion cubic feet of economically recoverable gas.
Naturally, news that Beirut was finally starting to drill the reserves last month was welcomed in Lebanon. But not everyone is celebrating.
In mid-February, "Israeli" Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz warned the Lebanese to avoid "the disputed line-of-contact," in reference to the triangular water area known as Block 9.
Tel Aviv claims that 860 square kilometers of water in the triangular zone belong to "Israel", leaving Lebanon with only 550 square kilometers.
Those demarcations have been flatly rejected by the Lebanese side, prompting "Israel's" Avigdor Lieberman to threaten a "full-scale" invasion, should drilling on Block 9 start.
Just days earlier, at a formal ceremony in Beirut on February 9, Lebanese President Michel Aoun braved external pressures and signed the first agreements for drilling in Lebanon's offshore sector with three energy companies, including Russia's Novatek.
Novatek, which is Russia's largest independent natural gas producer, also happens to be close to Vladimir Putin.
It is perhaps no coincidence then that the signing of the new energy agreement also coincided with the Kremlin authorizing the Russian Defense Ministry to prepare a military cooperation treaty that includes a "comprehensive framework for coordination" with the Lebanese armed forces.
The treaty consists of "exchanging information on defense means and enhancing international security capabilities; activating anti-terror cooperation; improving joint cooperation in the fields of cadre training, military exercises and armed forces building; exchanging IT expertise; establishing mechanisms for cooperation between the two countries' armies."
Experts maintain that the move should not be construed so much as a Russian effort to challenge the "Israeli" military, but rather as a preemptive measure aimed at averting another "Israeli" attack on Lebanon. Of course, in case of any direct military confrontation, the responsibility of guaranteeing Lebanese sovereignty will still fall squarely on Hezbollah.
As already escalating tensions between Beirut and Tel Aviv spike further over the maritime and border disputes, the eventuality of war is ever present.
Earlier this week, US Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters that "Israel" was preparing to attack Lebanon.
"Southern Lebanon is where the next war is coming," he said after touring the Middle East.
Graham claimed that the "Israelis" are itching to strike Hezbollah's guided-rocket capabilities.
"They've told us in no uncertain terms that if this threat continues - they keep making rockets that can hit the airport and do a lot of damage to [...] "Israel" -- they are going to have to go in," he added.
Graham explained that Washington was expected to provide diplomatic support when "Israeli" strikes hit civilian targets in Lebanon as well as deliver "ammunition, ammunition, ammunition".
To what extent Russia is able to contain the situation remains to be seen. But its military and energy agreements with Lebanon certainly demonstrate the Kremlin's willingness to keep Tel Aviv's and Washington's warmongering in check.