The American M48 Patton tank upgraded by the IDF was captured by Syrian forces with its three-man crew in the Sultan Yaakov battle in the Lebanon war of 1982. The three-man crew was lost. To this day the fate of Zacharia Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman has never been determined.
After the battle President Hafez Assad, father of the incumbent Bashar Assad, who established in the the1960s the first Russian-Syrian alliance the, agreed to let the Russian have the tank. They were keen to study the reactive armor the IDF had installed. Special teams of the Engineering Corps flew the tank from Sultan Yaakov battle field to Moscow.
Thirty four years later, the “Magach” (battering ram) tank arrived home after spending years in the Kubinka Tank Museum near Moscow, as a result of a gesture by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Israel PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
It is safe to assume that Putin consulted Assad before making this gesture and both had their own reasons for making it. It is also possible that the Syrian ruler may also decide to disclose what happened to the three missing Israeli soldiers and perhaps even return their remains.
debkafile sources in Moscow and Jerusalem probed to find out the motives of Putin and Assad, allies of Iran and Hizballah, in making this gesture. They find an answer in Putin’s broader designs for the Middle East alongside his military actions in Syria. In every recent conference between high ranking Russian and Israeli officials, the key issue of South Syria has come up in order to bridge their different objectives.
Moscow holds that all of South Syria must come under the Assad regime rule, as the key to its stability. Israel, along with the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, anxious to keep South Syria under the control of their respective Syrian rebel militias. Israel regards their presence as vital for preventing Iranian and Hizballah forces moving into the Syrian Golan up to the Israeli border. Putin offers Jerusalem an alternative. If Israel agrees to withdraw its support from the Syrian rebels to help Assad reclaim the region Moscow is willing to vouch that the Russian army stationed in Syria will prevent Iranian and Hizballah fighters from infiltrating or getting near the Israeli border.
The Russian president aims to restore the status quo prevailing in the Israeli-Syrian border region for 42 years since the 1974 Yom Kippur War. He envisages this situation producing three developments:
- The beginning of political exchanges between Israel and Syria, as a first step towards peace negotiations.
- This process would distance Damascus from Tehran and Beirut.
- It would also further distance Israel from the United States.
Putin appreciates that sending the tank back to Israel will not spark this entire process, but he thinks it might be a good token beginning.