Pragmatism in Syria

There is a balancing act to be worked out with Putin and new strategic goals for Israel in Syria, in the absence of US or NATO commitments to prevent Iranian encroachment.

October 8, 2015 21:57
3 minute read.
Russia Syria

Image by Pleiades Satellite shows Russian fighter jets and helicopters at a military base in the Syrian government-controlled port of Latakia. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)

‘Putin declares checkmate in Syria,” assistant professor of history Ibrahim al-Marashi wrote at Al Jazeera on Thursday. His is one of a deluge of analysis articles heralding a new Middle East after Russia began air strikes in Syria the previous day. Moscow’s intervention is the latest phase of the brutal civil war on Israel’s doorstep.

The Western countries see Russia’s air campaign as a dangerous escalation and they are angry that the strikes have already switched from targeting Islamic State forces to targeting the Syrian rebels. On Monday, NATO expressed “deep concern” over Russia’s actions. The “attacks by the Russian Air Force on Hama, Homs and Idlib which led to civilian casualties and did not target Da’esh [Islamic State].

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[NATO] allies call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on Syrian opposition and civilians, to focus its efforts on fighting [Islamic State].”

US President Barack Obama was more withering, claiming Russia’s actions were a “recipe for disaster.” However he also promised this would not be a “proxy war” between the US and the Russians. Obama wanted to disabuse those drawing Cold War parallels with Afghanistan of the 1980s.

Over the four-and-a-half years since the Syrian revolution against President Bashar Assad’s regime broke out, the tide of war has seesawed back and forth. Initial rebel successes gave way to increasingly bold intervention by Hezbollah, and that in turn led to greater Islamification among the rebels and the emergence of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. Syrian rebels have proven themselves incapable of uniting. Syria’s cities are devastated and half of the population of the country has been displaced, leading to a refugee crises affecting Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Europe.

Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria was not as surprising as it was depicted in the West or the mainstream media. For weeks it had been shipping fighter planes and helicopters to Latakia and indicating it would take the plunge. Moscow was emboldened by the nuclear deal that in effectively legitimized Iranian involvement in Iraq and means increased support for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has been supporting Assad since the Syrian war broke out. Russia had long-term interests in Syria, including a naval base at Tartus, and thousands of its citizens live in the country, the result of decades of partnership between the former Soviet regime and the Assads.

What are the ramifications of Russia’s stance for Israel? On September 21, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. According to foreign press reports he was accompanied by the IDF chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

Netanyahu has been the world’s leading spokesman on the dangers posed by Iran, and he brought that message to the Kremlin. “As you know, in recent years and even more so in recent months, Iran and Syria have been arming the radical terrorist organization Hezbollah with advanced weapons which are aimed at us.” Iran wanted to open a “terrorist front on the Golan,” he said. Netanyahu said afterward that he worked with Putin to put in place a “mechanism” to prevent any “misunderstandings” if Israeli and Russian forces operate in the same arena.

Israel has a profound interest in keeping the Golan Heights quiet. Toward that end, according to foreign media reports, it has quietly worked with various Syrian rebel groups. These groups are fighting the mutual enemy, Hezbollah. Israel needs to maintain security and aerial supremacy over the Golan border, and any Russian air strikes in that area could tip the balance in the regime’s favor and in doing empower Hezbollah.

Islamic Jihad also has ties with Iran. On August 21, the Israel Air Force carried out strikes in Syria against an Islamic Jihad cell that fired on the Jewish state.

Israel must be careful not to be seen to be working with Moscow against the Syrian opposition, as spurious media reports have suggested. At the same time, Israel must maintain its interests on the Golan and make clear to Russia that empowering Hezbollah or Iran in southern Syria will destabilize the region.

There is a balancing act to be worked out with Putin and new strategic goals for Israel in Syria, in the absence of US or NATO commitments to prevent Iranian encroachment.

As usual, Israel is faced with a series of strange bedfellows and no good choices, and as usual we must make the hard choices needed to protect our population from murderous enemies.

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