Intelligence file: Filling the vacuum

With the US reducing its footprint in the Middle East, Russia is stepping up and it isn’t asking anyone what they think – not least Israel, as this week’s aerial strikes on the Syrian Golan show.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War an IDF officer, to emphasize the gravity of the situation at the front line on the Golan Heights, radioed his superiors that “the Syrian are on the fences.”
His words have since become engraved in the collective Israeli memory as a marker of a dangerous situation.
Forty-two years later, metaphorically speaking, “the Russians are on the fences” of Israel’s border.
Veterans of the intelligence community refer to the increased Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war as Caucasus 3. This invented name corresponds with the real code words Caucasus 1 and Caucasus 2 used by the Red Army in the 1960s and ’70s to refer to its encroachment into the Middle East.
At the end of the 1960s through to the mid-’70s, the Red Army operated flight squadrons, aerial defense systems, intelligence operations, and naval vessels and stationed tens of thousands of advisers, primarily in Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but also in Iraq and Libya. As the Cold War raged between the Communist bloc and the West, the Soviet Union was the main arms supplier to those countries as part of a battle over interests and areas of control.
In 1972, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviet advisers, Cairo began pivoting toward the United States, and the Soviet influence in the Mideast began to wane.
Despite the differences between the Soviet involvement and today’s Russian adventure in Syria, the latter is reminiscent of Caucasus 1 and 2. The Russians now have squadrons with some 50 fighter jets and bombers in Syria. In addition, they are operating missile batteries, aerial defense systems, battleships, submarines, intelligence units, and have some 3,000 officers and soldiers in the country – including special forces – in battalion formations acting as advisers to the Syrian army and securing the airfields and bases that the Russian army is operating from.
The Russian involvement in Syria is a strategic move, not a short-term operation.
In many ways it is like entering a time warp and going back to the Cold War days of a battle between the blocs over spheres of influence.
The Russian presence in Syria has several motives. Perhaps not the most important one is the effort to save the failing regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and to consolidate his hold on the coastal Alawite enclave and on Damascus.
In recent months the Syrian army and militias loyal to the regime have struggled even to hold on to “Alawistan,” the region where most of Assad’s minority sect is concentrated.
For President Vladimir Putin, however, Assad is no more than a means to an end. Putin would not risk sending a military force just to prop up a failing dictator; and if it were in line with Russian interests, he would have no problem letting Assad fall.
Yet for the moment, Putin needs Assad so that he and his regime can control the coastal strip and the ports of Tartus and Latakia, which are vital to the Kremlin’s military and strategic interests. The ports secure the Russian presence in the Mediterranean basin, the corridor to the Black Sea and its warm-water ports, which Russia has coveted for 300 years since the days of Peter the Great.
In addition to maintaining its bases on the Syrian Mediterranean coast, Russia sees Syria as a springboard to expand its influence in the Middle East.
Putin, who in recent years has implemented a contrarian policy vis-a-vis the US, understood that President Barack Obama is changing his country’s global strategic doctrine. The importance of the Middle East to the US was primarily because of Arab oil, but the US is approaching energy independence and is reducing its dependence on imported oil, particularly from the Middle East.
The US is not abandoning the Middle East, but it is certainly reducing its footprint in the area and turning its strategic gaze to the Far East, in response to China’s growing military and economic power.
The vacuum being left behind by Washington is being filled by Moscow.
It is only natural that Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq (or to be more precise, the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad), all of which have an interest in keeping Assad in power, have eagerly jumped on the Russian bandwagon.
In July, Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, paid a secret visit to Moscow and tied up an agreement for Iranian-Russian strategic cooperation. The Iranians, primarily Shi’ite volunteers recruited by Tehran, together with Hezbollah forces would do the dirty work on the ground, while Russia would provide an aerial umbrella. A joint operations room and encrypted communications were set up, with Syria and Iraq taking part in addition to Russia and Iran. The framework was put in place for Russia to provide arms to Syria via Iran and Iraq and for joint operations on the ground and in the air.
At present, there are no signs that the Russian intervention is a game changer from a tactical perspective. Since the launch of operations about a month ago, the Russian air force has carried out some 1,000 bombing runs, an impressive figure in comparison to what the US and its allies have done, but the accuracy of the Russian raids has been anything but impressive, and more civilians than rebels have been killed.
While the US-led coalition has focused its strikes on Islamic State, 80 percent of Russian strikes have been against moderate rebels supported by the West, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The remainder of the Russian strikes have been against Islamic State and against Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida.
Putin is not planning on sending Russian ground forces into action. While the Kremlin does not release official figures, some 10 Russian soldiers are believed to have been killed so far. Even an all-powerful leader like Putin cannot afford to see Russian soldiers returning home in body bags. Putin and his military commanders have not forgotten the lessons of the Soviet Union’s disastrous war in Afghanistan some three decades ago.
Even Putin’s new allies – Iran, which has lost some 30 soldiers and officers, including senior generals, in Syria, and Hezbollah, which has suffered around 1,600 casualties – do not want to be cannon fodder and are trying to cut their losses.
Thus the Syrian army is continuing to bear the brunt of the ground fighting.
Assad, who met recently with Putin in Moscow, and his commanders are encouraged by Russia’s involvement in the war.
Indeed, the situation of the Syrian army has improved, and Russia’s involvement has been a boost for its morale, but there is no evidence that the Syrian army has managed to retake lost ground.
However, countries in the region that cannot be suspected of any great love for Putin have taken stock of the situation and are now toeing the Russian line.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, feeling that he was betrayed by Obama and that the United States cannot be trusted to provide backing, started buying Russian arms even before the first Russian planes and troops arrived in Syria.
Last Friday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that a coordination mechanism (similar to the one Russia has with Israel – Y.M.) was being set up with Jordan to avoid clashes over Syria.
Perhaps the most interesting development, however, is with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi defense minister visited Moscow a few weeks ago to try to reach an understanding with the Russians on how to end Syria’s civil war. Delegates from the Gulf states also visited the Kremlin. Like the Saudis, they understand that in light of America’s hesitance, Russia is the rising force in the region, and they cannot ignore it.
Even though, in the Syrian imbroglio, alliances are formed and fall apart overnight, there is at least one common interest between the sides that can be identified.
The US, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Iran all desire – some more, some less, each for its own reason – to weaken Islamic State.
Russia’s comportment in Syria shows the self-confidence of a superpower. It doesn’t take others into account, not even Israel.
This week, Russia bombed rebel targets on the Golan Heights in the border triangle between Israel, Jordan and Syria. Most of the targets were positions held by Jabhat al-Nusra, which controls large parts of the Syrian border with Israel.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin in Moscow a few weeks ago they set up a coordination mechanism to avoid military clashes between their forces. But in practice this mechanism does not exist. Senior sources say that Russia updates Israel after the fact or provides worthless information. That was the case with the most recent attacks on the Golan.