Officials at the Kremlin apparently took into account the possibility of a harsh diplomatic response by the West to the Georgia invasion. They were prepared for a verbal clash at the UN Security Council and with NATO, and showed willingness to cooperate with the French president’s mediation efforts. However, the West then adopted three harsh retaliatory moves that the Kremlin apparently did not foresee: The US quickly signed a deal with Poland in respect to the deployment of warning systems and missiles; NATO announced it was suspending its ties with Moscow; and talks were launched on Georgia joining NATO.
These moves are perceived by Russia as breaking the rules of the game – almost a declaration that the Cold War is being renewed. Through Russian eyes, this does not only undermine essential defense interests and their national honor, but also threatens the status of the Medvedev-Putin regime domestically – the two are being portrayed as impetuous for ordering the invasion.
Because of their distress, Russian leaders decided on their own retaliatory moves, which also go beyond verbal and diplomatic blows: They stopped their military withdrawal from Georgia on the pretext of creating a “security zone” around south Ossetia and Abkhazia; they suspended their ties with NATO; and they quickly invited Syria’s president to discuss arms sales and the tightening of relations. By doing so, the Russians are trying to signal to the West: You’re undermining our interests through our rivals in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus? We’ll get back at you, and not only in the Caucasus, but also in your soft underbelly – by boosting your rivals in the Middle East.
Syria was selected as the first to be wooed, because recently it appeared that it has been trying to move closer to the West and restore its ties with the US. By bringing Assad closer, Moscow is threatening to torpedo this move in a manner that would have a negative effect on the West’s ties with Lebanon and sabotage the chances of a peace deal between Syria and Israel. Russia will apparently ask for, and be granted, permission to boost its regular presence at Syrian ports, a move that would threaten America’s naval supremacy in the region.
The Iranian context
However, Israel may end up paying the direct and heaviest price as a result of these warmer ties. The Syrian procurement list is topped by an advanced anti-aircraft system that provides aerial defense and can intercept missiles. In addition, Syria has been trying to purchase medium-range ground-to-ground missiles that are more accurate than anything it possesses today. Such missiles would enable Damascus to accurately target military installations in northern and central Israel. Syria is also seeking to purchase other anti-aircraft systems as well as optical warning systems; the combination of all of the above could significantly erode Israel’s ability to protect itself against the thousands of ballistic missiles and rockets accumulated by Syria and used to threaten the Israeli home front.
The greatest harm could be caused to the Air Force’s ability to operate above Syria during wartime. We are not talking about systems that the Air Force, and the IDF in general, are incapable of “taking care of.” However, many sorties and other means, as well as plenty of time, will be required in order to neutralize these systems. Throughout this time, Israel’s home front will be exposed. The deployment of Russian experts in Syria, in addition to the hundreds who are there already, would also greatly undermine Israel’s ability to “punish” Syria should it attack us, while upgrading the Syrian military’s intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities.
By threatening to upgrade Syria’s military capabilities vis-à-vis Israel, Russia is trying to threaten the US. Israel has become the target through which the Russians are trying to hurt America. However, this is not the end of the story: By threatening to upgrade military ties with Syria, Moscow is hinting that should the West not step back and rescind the countermeasures adopted in relation to the Georgia war, the next in line for wooing would be Iran. It is obvious that Russia’s ability to harm the West in the Iranian context is much greater than in the Syrian context. At this time, Russia is already selling advanced arms to Iran while preventing harsher sanctions on Tehran in relation to its nuclear plan. Should Russia decide to act unrestrainedly, the damage to the West and Israel could be much graver.
Israel’s weapon: Peace conference
For the time being it appears that Russia is merely threatening, in a bid to deter the West. Officials in Moscow don’t want to embark on a genuine cold war. This, among others, is the reason why President Medvedev spoke with Prime Minister Olmert and attempted to allay his fears. We will very likely see the Russians refraining from making an explicit commitment to Assad about selling his country advanced anti-aircraft systems and missiles. They will announce their intention to continue negotiations and move on to advanced stages in order to preserve the threat against Israel and the West, but for the time being they won’t close a deal. Not officially at least.
One reason for this is that Israel has a significant pressure lever it can use against Russia: Moscow is currently making great efforts to convene, in November, a multi-party Mideast peace conference. Without Israel, such conference, which Russia seeks in order to gain some direly needed national and international prestige, would not have any substantial value. Israel has already expressed in the past qualified willingness to participate in the conference, and Russia is concerned that closer ties with Damascus and the selling of advanced weapons to its army would prompt Israel to change its position.
And so, the cards are still on the table, and the Russians are playing them cautiously. It appears that the West also does not wish to exacerbate the crisis. Should Russia withdraw its forces from sovereign Georgian territory, as Moscow promised to do, a new and saner phase of dialogue may follow and end the crisis.
Yet meanwhile, President Assad has already proven his rashness and lack of diplomatic wisdom. Even before it became clear whether the crisis is getting worse or fading away, he started behaving as though the Cold War is here already. In interviews to the Russian press, he unequivocally positioned himself on Russia’s side, sounding like a bumbling fool. He even offered that Russia deploy missiles on Syrian territory. Generally speaking, Assad left the impression that he misses the Cold War era and the role played in it by Syria as the Soviet Union’s ally. The West, and mostly the US, will likely settle the score with him in the future.
However, for now Israel must carefully weigh whether the unstable and impetuous Assad is a suitable partner for peace talks and strategic agreements.