Israel is threatening to escalate military action in Syria against perceived Iranian interests. This week Netanyahu declared, "we will act when necessary according to our red lines" while hinting he prefers ISIS presence in Syria as opposed to Iran aligned fighters at his border. This comes as ISIS is now crumbling, and at a time when most world leaders of nations driving the external proxy war in Syria have toned down their rhetoric regarding the future fate of the Assad government.
After years of a regular drumbeat of bellicose statements emanating from the West and repeat talk of "Assad must go", "red lines", and years of constantly failed predictions that "regime demise is imminent," there now seems a general acceptance that the Syrian government has emerged victorious in the 6-year long conflict. Not only did Trump this summer order the closure of the CIA's regime change program which targeted Assad, but it appears even Gulf nations - lately embroiled in their own inter-GCC political civil war and airing of dirty laundry - have been forced to temper their rhetoric. Turkey also has reluctantly shifted its priorities in Syria after its well-known and documented regime change machinations - which included facilitating the transfer of tens of thousands of foreign jihadists (the core of which joined ISIS) across its southern border - have largely backfired. International media too, generally reflecting undeniable geopolitical realities, have bluntly headlined stories with "And the winner is: Assad" and "We have to accept that Assad will win in Syria" and "How Assad is Winning".
But it appears Benjamin Netanyahu didn't get the memo. On Wednesday the Israeli Prime Minister told Russian President Putin that Israel would not tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria and further signaled willingness to go to war in Syria to curtail Iranian influence. "Iran is already well on its way to controlling Iraq, Yemen and to a large extent is already in practice in control of Lebanon," Netanyahu told Putin, adding further that, "We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel. Israel opposes Iran's continued entrenchment in Syria. We will be sure to defend ourselves with all means against this and any threat."
The two leaders met for three hours in the Black Sea resort of Sochi - their sixth such meeting since September 2015. Putin did not respond publicly to the provocative words on Syria during the portion of the meeting open to reporters. Netanyahu later told Israeli reporters covering the meeting that:
Bringing Shi'ites into the Sunni sphere will surely have many serious implications both in regard to refugees and to new terrorist acts. We want to prevent a war and that's why it's better to raise the alarm early in order to stop deterioration.
Netanyahu's reference to "the Sunni sphere" came after he summarized the closed door part of the discussion as dealing with "Iran's attempt to establish a foothold in Syria in the places where ISIS was defeated and is leaving." Netanyahu's comments are a reflection of an extremely disturbing view which has become so prominent within Israeli defense circles as to be considered establishment: that ISIS is ultimately preferable to Iran and Assad. This is to say that continued ISIS presence in Syria and Iraq is a viable option and possibly better than pro-Iranian or even Russian spheres of influence in the Israeli prime minister's mind. Of course, this "lesser evil is ISIS" view is nothing new. In Israel, for example, there are even "respected" think tanks tied in with major public universities which openly call for allowing ISIS to thrive in Syria.