What's Putin's endgame?

Israel learns the hard way the limitations of its power when it faces a superpower with important interests in the Middle East.

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)
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)
THE LATE-SEPTEMBER meeting near Moscow between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin came amid an increased Russian military presence in Syria and America’s stalled policy regarding the civil war-riven state.
By the end of September, Russia had deployed in military bases near Latakia, in Syria’s northern coastal strip, 28 combat jets (12 Suchoi Su-24 bombers, 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft and four Su-30 multi-role fighters); two types of drones, and 20 helicopters (a mix of gunships and troop carriers). There are indications, still difficult to verify, that Russia already has, or soon will need, more bases to house its expeditionary force.
While Israel, along with the Western intelligence services, tries to decipher Putin’s end game, the Syria policy of US President Barack Obama is in disarray. Arguments are heard within the administration about the degree to which its bombing campaign has weakened Islamic State (ISIS).
General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command (in charge of the Middle East), astonished a Senate Armed Services Committee recently when he admitted that a $500 million effort to create a “New Syrian Force” to tackle ISIS has so far resulted in only “four or five” fighters actively battling the jihadi army.
Marine General (ret.) John Allen, handpicked by Obama to build the war effort against the Islamic State, and several other senior officials disappointed with the administration’s weak action in Syria and Iraq have decided to step down. Allen and his colleagues wanted tougher military measures to be taken in order to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Following the recent tête-à-tête with the Russian leader, Netanyahu painted the encounter in bright colors and described it as “successful.” However, past encounters between Israeli prime ministers and Putin have presented a more complicated picture. Amicability and protocol aside, such meetings neither changed Russian policy in the region nor moved Putin one centimeter closer to Israeli positions.
In these meetings since Putin came to power in 2000, a reoccurring ritual has been established.
Prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu stressed their concerns about sales of sophisticated Russian military hardware (missiles, air defense systems, aircraft) to Syria and Iran. The Israeli leaders presented intelligence reports showing that some of the hardware found its way to the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah militia, which is an Iranian proxy and practically an extension of Tehran’s military force in the region.
Putin and his aides listened politely, expressed their understanding of Israeli security, denied that they armed Hezbollah and, if it indeed happened, claimed that it was against their policy and promised to investigate the reports.
Upon their return home, each of the prime ministers, in a self-congratulatory manner, declared that they managed to persuade Putin – in sharp contrast to what eventually emerged.
This is more or less what happened with Netanyahu’s latest meeting.
The Prime Minister, who was accompanied by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Commander of Military Intelligence Herzl Halevi and National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, soon to be announced as the next head of the Mossad, declared subsequently that the two countries had decided to set a joint committee to coordinate deconfliction, a military term used to describe reducing the risk of collision and inadvertent engagement between two forces operating in the same arena.
It was decided in a parallel meeting between Eisenkot and his counterpart General Valery Gerasimov that their deputies would head a joint committee tasked with dealing with airborne, seaborne and “electromagnetic” (i.e. missiles, radars and air defense systems) matters.
However, judging from past encounters, very little progress is made after the “good and cordial meetings” and the understandings and coordination apparently reached.
For example, for years Israel tried to stop the sale to Iran of the advanced Russia S-300 air defense system, but Israeli and US pressure on Putin was in vain. In any event, the deal was eventually suspended by the Kremlin itself when it suited its interests and was recently reinstated with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal.
Briefing Putin on how Israel perceives the Syrian imbroglio, Netanyahu and his aides presented a very gloomy picture. They said Israel is once again worried about the “leakage” (transfer) of Syrian and Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. Israeli intelligence has evidence that even Russian-made Yakhonts ‒ longrange, advanced ground-to-sea missiles ‒ have found their way to the Shi’ite militia.
Israel is also bothered by the repeated attempts by Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, commanded by the charismatic and influential General Qasem Soleimani, to set up a “forward command” on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Soleimani’s plan has been, and still is, to use the area as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israeli troops and civilians by hiring “mercenaries” ‒ be they members of radical Palestinian terror groups or Druse still loyal to Assad.
Taking advantage of accurate, real-time intelligence, Israel has on numerous occasions, without claiming responsibility for the actions, thwarted such efforts by deploying the air force to bomb the terrorist sites or vehicles and by killing Iranian generals and senior Hezbollah operatives involved in the operations.
BUT NETANYAHU’S and Eisenkot’s most serious concern about the Russian presence in Syria is the fear that it will restrict the freedom of action that the Israel Defense Forces, in general, and the Israel Air Force, in particular, have enjoyed so far.
Israel is not interested in intervening in the Syrian civil war, and has tried to stay away from it. Cynical as it may sound, Israel’s national security interests benefit from the bloody war that, so far, has claimed the lives of a quarter million people, and made nearly half the population homeless or refugees.
The war strengthens Israeli military superiority in the region and weakens its sworn enemies – Hezbollah and Iran. Yet, from time to time, Israel has become involved in the war whenever security interests have required it.
These interests have been defined by Eisenkot and his predecessor Benny Gantz, as well as by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. They include the desire to stop the flow of advanced weapons to Hezbollah; to prevent terror attacks against Israelis on the Golan Heights; and to ensure, if possible, the safety of the small (700,000) Druse community in Syria, which is a major concern for their Israeli Druse brothers.
For more than a decade, even before the breakout of the civil war, IAF pilots flew freely over Syria. They attacked terrorist bases; broke the sound barrier flying over Assad’s palace in Damascus just to make a point, and, in 2007, destroyed a nuclear reactor built with the help of North Korea in eastern Syria. In the 55 months of the civil war, at least 10 air strikes against weapon convoys between Syria and Hezbollah have been attributed to the IAF. They were carried out whenever good intelligence and operational feasibility warranted it, without the need to consult with anyone else.
Now, Israel may well need to coordinate its plans beforehand or in real time with Russia.
Therefore, the main purpose of Netanyahu’s snap visit was to try to create the mechanism to prevent undesired consequences vis-à-vis Russian forces and Syria, and still preserve Israeli freedom of maneuverability.
The technicalities for deconfliction are of lesser importance ‒ they can be reached via “hotlines” set between the military commands of the two countries or via identifying signals sent by warplanes to differentiate between friend and foe.
But what Netanyahu really wants is more than that. He hoped to reach tacit understanding with Putin about the division of Syria into operational spheres of influence.
Israel hopes Russian forces will not get close to the Israeli border and that it will not interfere or sabotage operations against anti-Israel terrorists or interfere with IAF strikes on weapon transfers to Hezbollah.
Israel, for its part, promised Russia not to side with any player in Syria and not to get close to the northern part of the country, where Russia forces are stationed.
It is doubtful, however, whether such a high-level coordination is possible. Putin acknowledged in his conversation with Netanyahu that he is fully aware of the Israeli security concerns. But if he accepts Israel’s interpretation of self-defense beyond its territory, Putin will practically admit that Israel or any other country has the right, with Russia’s blessing, to violate his client state’s sovereignty. As the major power supporting the Assad regime and its legitimacy, this is something Putin can’t afford.
Even by deciding to go to Moscow, Israel’s freedom of action already has been hampered. Once again – as in the case of the nuclear deal with Iran – Israel is learning the hard way the limitations of its power when it faces a super power with important interests in the Middle East. However, this is preferable to being exposed to the risk of military confrontation with Russia. Moreover, Israel is better off with Russia’s deeper involvement in Syria instead of Iran’s meddling.
Putin’s endgame remains unclear – probably to ensure the existence of at least a “Small Syria” stretching from Damascus to the Mediterranean coastal strip (where the Russian bases are). However, one thing is certain – Putin decided to send his forces to save the Assad regime, or whatever is left of it because he realized that neither Iran nor Hezbollah can get the job done. 
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman