A spectator watches Sukhoi Su-30SM jet fighters of the Sokoly Rossii (Falcons of Russia) aerobatic team perform during the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is to be made of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian forces in Syria? What impact, if at all, will it have on Israel? The Russian pullout seems to be spurred by two factors: First, the Russians have essentially attained their goal of preventing the fall of the Assad regime.
Back in September, when the Russians first introduced large numbers of troops and air power, the pro-Assad forces had suffered a number of setbacks and seemed in danger of toppling. Now, the Assad regime appears to have been stabilized, at least in the coastal area.
Second, Putin wanted to avoid unanticipated problems that could result from getting bogged down in the Syrian quagmire for too long. By announcing the pullout after providing Assad with a serious boost, Putin avoids the risk that what has been a relatively painless and, in both military and public relations terms, highly successful mission for Russia, could turn into a fiasco costly in lives, money and political capital for the Kremlin. Thus, Putin wraps up Moscow’s first major military operation outside the former Soviet Union since the collapse of communism relatively cleanly from a Russian perspective.
From an Israeli perspective, the partial Russian pullout can be seen as positive development. Israel has worked to maintain correct relations and military coordination with Moscow while maintaining its strategic ties with the US. The Russian withdrawal makes this easier.
With Russia pulling its troops and air force out of Syria, Israel will be freer to operate in the airspace of Lebanon when necessary to prevent arms smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah. Until now, Israel had to take care to avoid accidentally striking Russian troops.
Also, with Russia withdrawing some of its troops, Hezbollah might now be forced to pick up some of the slack. The more Hezbollah is involved in the fighting in Syria, the less time it has challenging Israel along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Even the stabilizing of the Assad regime that was accomplished by the Russians is not necessarily bad for Israel. Israel, after all, has no potential allies among the various groups fighting in Syria.
If anything, the groups that either support Assad or are fighting his enemies, such as the Kurds and the Druse, are more likely to have common interests with Israel than the rebel groups trying to topple Assad.
The supposedly moderate Sunni rebels supported by the Gulf states might be less radical than ISIS and al-Qaida when it comes to tolerance of minority Muslim groups, but they are no less extremist when it comes to the “Zionist entity.” Many of the Sunni rebel groups belong to the Salafi stream of Islam that, like ISIS, is striving to create a Muslim caliphate in the entire region. These groups will never reconcile themselves to Israel’s control over the Golan Heights. One of their claims against Assad and his father is that they failed to confront Israel over the this issue for over 40 years.
There are no easy solutions in Syria. What was once a unified country is now a patchwork of ethnic and sectarian enclaves. Kurds control large swathes of the north near the border with Turkey; ISIS has maintained its hold of the northeast and has connected this with the northwestern part of Iraq; the Alawites are concentrated along the coast in towns such as Latakia, Homs and Damascus; the Druse are in the South; and Sunni rebels backed by the Saudis control a fairly large area south of Aleppo.
Besides partition, it is difficult to forecast the future for Syria. It is even more difficult to project whether the disintegration of Syria will be good or bad for Israel. However, the Russian withdrawal appears to be a positive development for Israel, at least in the short-term.