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Photo: AP
The Iranians ar about to become Russia's loyal clients. Putin with Iranian President Rouhani
Photo: AP
Ron Ben-Yishai
What Putin's Syrian strategy means for Israel
Analysis: Russian president seeks to enhance his country's influence in the region through his alliance with Assad: A dangerous gamble, but Israel need not worry for the moment.

Monday's speeches at the UN General Assembly meeting revealed the true desires of Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama.

 

The US president wants to end his time in office without another war and without having to send more US troops to fight on foreign land.

 

 

He doesn't want to resolve conflicts but to prevent them by diplomatic means, and if he can't prevent them – he'd like to handle them in a way that minimizes the damage. He sees the US as a world leader and its number one superpower – for one, because it's military is the largest and most advanced in the world, but mostly because its recovering economically, while rivals Russia and China are slowly deteriorating.

 

Putin has totally different goals. Besides his known ambition to return Russia to its tsar-glory days, an ambition held by communist leaders in their time, he also wants to gerrymander the world into spheres of influence. For instance, eastern Ukraine is mine – western Ukraine is yours, Syria is mine – Saudi Arabia is yours, and so on.

 

Obama and Putin at the UN (Photo: EPA)
Obama and Putin at the UN (Photo: EPA)

 

In order to realize this idea, Putin has recently increased his involvement in Syria. Bashar Assad gave the Russians what his father Hafez refused to his last breath. The Russians used to have one dock in the port of Tartus in Syria's Alawite enclave, and now they have the entire port, as well as an air base north of Latakia.

 

Now the Russians have a permanent strategic anchor in the eastern Mediterranean – just like the US and NATO have their presence in Turkey. Moreover, Putin has exploited Assad's and the Iranians' distress to make himself a major player in the Middle East, just as the United States' influence in the region is waning.

 

Meanwhile, Iran is working to turn Hezbollah into an independent producer of weapons and munitions. This is so that they may prevent Israeli bombings of weapons convoys making their way through Syria, thus escalating tensions. It's reasonable to assume that the Iranians are doing this with approval from the Russians, who do not currently want any regional conflicts with Israel.

 

Putin is creating an axis in which Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Russia are up against the pro-Western axis of the Gulf states and Egypt, and he has yet to say his last word on the matter. He made an intelligence-based alliance with Iraq, supposedly to combat ISIS, but the Islamic State isn't the main story here. Russia, as a global superpower with crucial influence in the Middle East, that's the story.

 

Obama and Ban at the UN.    (צילום: רויטרס)

Obama and Ban at the UN.

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Regarding ISIS, Putin's intentions are very simple: We'll give Assad anything he needs, so that ISIS has to fight for its existence and can't increase its power in the southern Caucasus region (and we'll give the same to the Iraqis and Iranians if need be).

 

He'd prefer it if the fanatical Chechen Muslims, who are loyal to ISIS, returned home in coffins, and not as experienced fighters that the Russian military has to fight against in the Caucasus, Pakistan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and other Muslim Russian republics.

 

Therefore, the Russian involvement in Syria is an important strategic point for Putin, as well as targets that can be considered "systemic", which are related to Syria's security and economy, as will be made clear.

 

What we did in '73

Putin is currently doing for Assad what Nixon's US did for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, 42 years ago.

 

The Syrian military's equipment was outdated and ineffective even before the civil war started. Now, after four years of war, half of it is gone and significant percents aren't usable. These include fighter planes, armored troop carriers, and tanks.

 

In the past few weeks, Russia has given the Syrian military sophisticated and accurate arms, which will help it target rebel forces. These are replacing the inaccurate artillery batteries Assad is still using, as well as the surface missiles that only sporadically hit their targets (much like when the US gave Israel anti-tank missiles in 1973, so that the Egyptian advancement towards Be'er Sheva could be halted).

 

Assad currently controls less than a quarter of Syria's original territory, but that's enough for the Russians. They can implement everything they want to in the confines of Shi'ite-Alawite "little Syria", which spans from the Latakia coastline to Damascus. That gives Russia a corridor to southern Lebanon.

 

A Russian base in Syria (Photo: AFP / CNES 2015 DISTRIBUTION AIRBUS DS / 2015 IHS)
A Russian base in Syria (Photo: AFP / CNES 2015 DISTRIBUTION AIRBUS DS / 2015 IHS)

 

They don't need more than that to maintain a large military base, which could be used for all types of purposes, most of all to stick a finger in the Americans' eye. They could also use this as a bargaining chip to achieve their goals in Ukraine. 

 

The Russians are smart. They aren't going to send Russian soldiers to fight ISIS, but they'll make sure Assad can do it. If they expand structures and storage spaces in two Syrian military logistics facilities near Latakia, it's not in order to bring in Russian tank brigades, but in order to facilitate new tanks, airplanes, and arms for use by Assad's forces.

 

Israel should understand this and try to use it to its advantage. We have to remember: Just as the Americans remember their failed interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, so the Russians remember their humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in March 1989.

 

Putin won't repeat the same mistake, so he won't be sending Russian troops to fight ISIS on the ground. He'll only be supplying Assad with weapons, and the Iranians will pay him for it (after the economic sanctions are removed).

 

The Iranians will also probably soon become the Russian arms industry's number one client, perhaps compensating Russia somewhat for the financial damages it has suffered due to the Ukraine-related sanctions imposed on it by the Europeans and the Americans.

 

Putin winking at Israel

In his UN speech, Putin gave a determined, aggressive, and even bold and creative appearance, which caused many in the media and diplomatic worlds to start heaping praise onto him.

 

But we need to keep in mind that the Russian involvement in the Middle East, as well as the strategic game Putin is playing (in which he's currently gaining small victories) isn't over yet.

 

PM Netanyahu and President Putin (Photo: AP)
PM Netanyahu and President Putin (Photo: AP)

 

Russia's economy is declining, and the Middle East, as we know, is a place where unpredictability is one of very few constants. Putin might go back home with his tail between his legs, just like the Americans did with Iraq and Afghanistan, and like Israel did after the First Lebanon War.

 

What does all of that mean for us? It seems that the new situation, with Russia being more and more intertwined with Syria, is more of an opportunity for Israel than it is a risk. Putin also made this clear when he said – and this is a far-reaching statement – that Israel had legitimate interests in Syria.

 

It means that Putin sees us as a legitimate partner for determining the future of the region, which Russia aspires to lead.

 

Russia sees us as a partner even though Putin quickly condemned Israel's airstrikes in Syria. That condemnation was meant to send the message: You Israelis are partners, but there are rules to this game, and you'll have to respect them.

 

It's likely that as a result, and as a result of the agreement between Putin and Netanyahu, Israel will try to avoid future airstrikes against Assad's weapon convoys to Hezbollah. After all, Russia is the one giving Assad those weapons, and it has a clear interest in drawing Israel, a local power, to its side, distancing it from the Americans.

 

Russia sees as a partner even though Putin quickly condemned Israel's airstrikes in Syria. That condemnation was meant to send the message: You Israelis are partners, but there are rules to this game, and you'll have to respect them.

 

It's likely that as a result, and as a result of the agreement between Putin and Netanyahu, Israel will try to avoid future airstrikes against Assad's weapon convoys to Hezbollah. One can also expect Russia to avoid permitting the transfer of Assad's weapons to Hezbollah. After all, Russia is the one giving Assad those weapons, and it has a clear interest in pulling Israel, a local power, to its side, distancing it from the Americans.

 

The bottom line is that Russia will probably serve as a stabilizing force in Syria, but what's less appealing is that it will legitimize an Iranian entrance into the country, under its supervision. As I said, it's unknown what will come out of the complex regional stew Russia is cooking. Putin doesn't know if his gamble will pay off, either. But as of now Israel needn't be too worried about Russia's increased presence in the region.

 


פרסום ראשון: 09.29.15, 23:27
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