Gemunder Center Distinguished Fellow IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror on Russian use of Power in Syria in Israel Hayom

Next year in Moscow
By IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror

The Russians are determined to bring back some of the status that the Soviet Union of yore enjoyed to today’s Russia – They believe Western carelessness is to blame for the rise of Islamic State and are using Syria to demonstrate strategic capability.

Next year in Moscow
By IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror

The Russians are determined to bring back some of the status that the Soviet Union of yore enjoyed to today’s Russia – They believe Western carelessness is to blame for the rise of Islamic State and are using Syria to demonstrate strategic capability.

Russia’s status in the Middle East has changed remarkably in recent years, and there are some who would say that it has become the most powerful superpower in the world, at least within the context of the Syrian conflict. The main reason for this is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to invest significant resources and to take risks in the region with the goal of realizing his country’s interests.

The practical expression of this is vast: The success in warfare meant to stabilize Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime; the participation in efforts to destroy the Islamic State group; the establishment of a Russian air base in northern Syria and the deployment of ground forces (beginning in Autumn 2015); the operation of air force planes from a base in Iran (August 2016); the rift and renewed cooperation with Turkey; the supply of weapons to Iran; and recently, the signing of the deal (which is likely to fail) with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry regarding the future of Syria — wherein Russia, unlike the United States, did not abandon its positions.

It’s possible to understand the reasons behind the Russian effort in the region if one understands the connection between what happens inside the country and events outside it. For example, the war against Georgia in 2008, the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the warnings to the Baltic states. All of these were the decision of a single man, so it seems that they all have a common foundation.

It seems that what motivates Russia today is, in all of these cases, its unwillingness to accept as a fait accompli the marginal position that the West pushed it into following the collapse of the Soviet Union. So the Russians are determined to bring back at least some of the status enjoyed by the Soviet Union of yore to today’s Russia.

This is given expression in both symbolic and practical issues. On the symbolic front, Russia emphasizes the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, its contribution to the Allied victory and the number of people it sacrificed. On the practical front, Russia is making efforts to maintain its influence in its own region and around the world. This is why Russia reacted so aggressively when it felt that NATO was trying to deploy in additional countries nearby, and it is not prepared to agree to containment and exclusion efforts against it, which Moscow believes are led by the United States. Russia sees NATO’s and the European Union’s steps as a threat and does not accept the West’s explanation that they are meant only as protective measures — Russia believes this is a part of the American attempt to isolate and weaken it.

Thus a significant portion of Russia’s efforts are directed against the United States, which is perceived as its main rival, and, at the same time, as a superpower at a point of weakness, mainly due to the character of its current administration, which is fearful of any conflict that could ultimately involve the military.

This is why Russia is not compromising, not regarding the annexation of Crimea and not regarding continued aid to eastern Ukraine — the same is true regarding Assad’s status in Damascus. The Russians are very tough in talks on these topics, and they are determined in their use of military force. And their method has been successful so far.

With its national motive and its conclusions about the United States in the background, it is easier to understand Russia’s activities in the Middle East, an area that is geographically close to it. Russia is still affected by the traumatic event that was the Libyan crisis. Russia agreed to get on board with the U.N. Security Council resolution in March 2011 that was carefully worded so as to prevent an all-out war on late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. Ultimately, Russia found itself surprised by Western powers, which, under the umbrella of the scant resolution, took out the regime in which Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, had invested considerable funds and political energy.

The catastrophic results of the operation led to chaos in the country that has yet to settle. Libya became the main weapons source for major terrorist organizations, and it attracted refugees from all over Africa on their way to Europe.

The chaotic situation currently unfolding in Libya is an illustration to the Russians and to others of why they must prevent a repeat scenario. This is why Russia refused any resolution that would provide any kind of opening for action against the Syrian regime when similar unrest erupted there.

Events in Egypt a few months earlier also influenced Russia’s decision-making process. As a result of the Arab Spring and the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the United States was perceived as an ally that abandoned its long-time friend. The Russians felt it important that they appear completely different from the United States in this respect, that is to say, loyal, rather than traitors.

These two events, in Libya and in Egypt, shaped Moscow’s immediate reaction to the unrest in Syria. Russia quickly and clearly stood by Assad.

The price of carelessness
Another important motive that influences Russia’s policies in the region is the serious concern over the spread of radical Sunni Islam toward Russia, which has a large Sunni population. The rise of the Islamic State group and its emissaries around the world — along with the large number of Islamic State volunteers who come to join the organization from Russia and the horrible terrorist attacks that Russia has experienced in the past — justifies Russia’s fears and strengthens its claims. The Russians have repeatedly claimed that the American capture and the subsequent execution of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and the strengthening of Syria’s Sunni opposition by U.S. allies and with U.S. encouragement, are responsible for Islamic State’s rise. The world is paying the price of Western carelessness.

Russian intervention in Syria developed in three stages: The first was born of the Syrian military’s complete reliance on Russian weapons. The Russians continued to supply the Syrian army’s needs at full speed, leading them to expand their hold on the Tartus port, as the number of ships unloading weapons there constantly grew. In the beginning, this was mostly a lot of ammunition, but later it included advanced weapons systems that the regime did not need for the fighting. Indeed, some of them were transferred to Hezbollah, a move that the Russians did not stop. The sale of these weapons indicates that profit may also be an important consideration here. The second stage of Russia’s intervention was less obvious — at a certain point, the involvement of Russian intelligence advisers and officials in the fighting grew significantly. It is difficult to determine exactly how many officials there were and how deeply involved they were, but it is clear that it went beyond the first stage of weapons provision. It seems that Russia’s sophisticated intelligence efforts tipped the scales and stopped the deterioration of Assad’s army on the battlefield.

The third stage, also the present one, which began only after the nuclear deal with Iran was signed, includes the deployment of advanced planes, taking on a visible, direct and very important role in the warfare. It also includes ground forces to secure areas such as the airport and the naval port. The Russians are operating at full force (at times without any humanitarian consideration), in full cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah , in order to save the Alawite regime — and only as a secondary priority are they seeking to harm Islamic State and other radical organizations.

Russia took advantage of the opportunity in its path, turning the battlefield in Syria into a testing field for its new weapons systems and into an arena for the display of its strategic capability, which is much more than what is required to deal with the situation on the ground.

For example, Russia fired cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea when it had planes stationed 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) away from its targets, used strategic bombers and deployed the S-400 air defense system without any operational necessity. There is no airborne threat to Russia’s forces in Syria. It was important to the Russians to demonstrate their capability as a superpower to regional powers, and perhaps even more so, to decision-makers in Europe and the United States.

Putin’s revenge
The Russian leadership faced a difficult test with Turkey, but it managed to get through it in a manner than demonstrated an ability to deal with crises.

Turkey saw Russia’s intervention in Assad’s favor in a poor light, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had worked against the Syrian leader, whom he hates, and because it meant that Russian troops were deployed south of Turkey. These troops operated directly along the Turkish border, as Russian planes flew overhead in a display of Russian disrespect for Turkey. In response, the Turks prepared an ambush and shot down a Russian plane that they claimed had invaded Turkish airspace in November 2015. This was a test for Putin, and he decided to react forcefully. Trade with Turkey (excluding gas) was immediately halted, and Russia began a personal campaign against Erdogan and his family. Even more important was the strategic move Russia made when it began to “court” the Kurds in northern Syria. While they are Assad’s enemies due to their desire for autonomy in their region, this was the most significant card to play against Turkey, which fears any sign of Kurdish sovereignty along the Turkish-Syrian border.

These Kurds have a strong relationship with the armed Kurdish group in Turkey, the PKK, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization and which its army is fighting. Erdogan understood the strategic risk involved in the steps taken by the Russians and decided to entirely change the relationship with Russia. He took the opportunity after the failed coup in Turkey in July to apologize to the Russians for downing the plane, also conceding his demand for Assad’s immediate ouster. Putin came out on top in this struggle between two leaders, who are each very powerful at home.

Russia’s involvement in saving the Alawite regime is not for the same reasons that led to Iranian involvement, but the two countries found themselves fighting on the same side, and both want to harm the United States and to minimize its influence in the region. It seems that the Iranians are struggling to keep up with the relationship between the countries, which accelerated after the signing of the nuclear deal.

Leadership meetings since then came and went, and significant cooperation agreements were signed in the fields of energy (including the sale of nuclear power plants to Iran) and weapons supply. But Iran still remembers the occupation of parts of its territory by Russia during World War II and is very sensitive to the involvement of foreign countries. So, when it became public news that the Russian air force was using a base in Iran (about a month ago), Iran nipped that incident in the bud.

Russia is also trying to establish a different relationship with the Sunni Arab states. Recently, there have been more talks regarding Russian arms sales to Egypt and the construction of nuclear reactors in Jordan. Relations with Saudi Arabia are more complicated, especially due to Russian outrage over the flooding of the oil market, but there is a possibility of growing Saudi investment in Russia and maybe even Russian arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Russian effort on this front has met a number of obstacles thus far because in some of the Sunni sates, there is no trust in Moscow’s intentions.

The limits of power
An important and interesting question in light Russia’s extensive efforts is: At what point will their ambitions be met with a wall of limited resources? While it is a large country, its population is shrinking and its economy is, according to all theoretical calculations, on the verge of collapse; and yet, it made a huge investment in modernizing its army and is going on expensive adventures.

Can it continue this way into the future? There is no good answer to this question, and so the world, it seems, will continue to be surprised each time Russia initiates another step that expands the deployment and operations of its forces.

There are some major disagreements between Russia and Israel, especially after the sale of sophisticated weapons to Iran and Syria, and the transfer of many weapons systems to Hezbollah. On the other hand, Russia’s simultaneous willingness to deal with Israeli Air Force operations above Syria reflects a certain understanding, not to mention it legitimizes Israel’s (several) operations to stop the arms transfers.

Overall, in its relationship with Russia, Israel is realistic: It tries to understand what can be achieved (for example, a lengthy delay in supplying Iran with the S-300 missile system) and what cannot be achieved (for example, canceling the purchase deal for the S-300 missile system).

Israel understands that it cannot stop cooperation between Iran, Hezbollah and Syria in the war against the rebels — but it was able to establish a practical arrangement to prevent any incidents that could occur if both sides operate in the same area without reliable communication. This is the essence of the conflict-prevention mechanism that exists between the two countries. It is certainly not an alliance, and not even a coordination agreement; it is a technical arrangement with the goal of preventing any incidents, and its diplomatic significance should not be overstated. It is limited to the narrow field of preventing error in an area where both sides are active, each for their own purposes.

We also cannot rely on the hope that the Russians will limit Hezbollah’s and Iran’s operations against Israel or mitigate them.

It is up to Israel to continue to live with Russian troops in its neighborhood, while making its interests clear, and occasionally even using force to safeguard them — but without a head-on collision with Russia. Israel must maintain dialogue with Russia at all levels.

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