As Russia Moves Into Syria, Israel’s Red Line Is Dissolving Before Our Eyes

If Israel respects other players’ red lines, it will only retain a small area near Damascus and near the Lebanese border if it plans to block weapons smuggling to Hezbollah.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jet.
A Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jet.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Hundreds of anti-ISIS sorties over a year by coalition planes didn’t draw a fraction of the attention of a Russian airstrike near Homs in northern Syria on Wednesday. There’s no doubt about it — Russian President Vladimir Putin has panache. Put another way, he knows how to make an entrance.

It may be premature to say Russia has won a tie-breaker in Syria, but there’s no doubt the arena now includes an aggressive player. This is the first key development since the Islamic State’s rise last year and the West’s efforts to fight it rather than the Assad regime.

The roaring Russian debut doesn’t necessarily guarantee decisive results, or even success. Both Moscow and Washington have gloomy memories of costly and failed military interventions abroad (Russia in Afghanistan in the 1980s).

The Syrian civil war already has so many combating sides, with the involvement of so many countries, that Russian reinforcements and airstrikes could actually worsen the war rather than produce an accord to halt the fighting, as suggested by Putin. So in Syria’s crowded, unfriendly skies there are now also Russian jets, which will have to avoid collisions and unintended  duels with their American, French, Israeli, Turkish and Arab counterparts.

Speeches at the UN General Assembly highlighted the new aspects of the Mideast's conflicts, particularly the massacres in Syria. Putin came to lay claim to his new status in the region, alongside tensions with the West in other arenas, chief of them Ukraine. His heightened military intervention in Syria is part of a regional maneuver based on understandings with Iran.

This foray could be expanded to other areas, even as far as Yemen. In the last two years Russian officials met with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fatteh al-Sissi five times. U.S. President Barack Obama only had time to meet with Sissi once.

From Russia’s perspective, Washington has left the Middle East in ruins. The aggressiveness of the Bush administration, followed by the liberal naveté of the Obama administration, led to the collapse of regimes that Russia viewed favorably, from Iraq to Egypt to Libya.

Putin has no intention of seeing this happen in Syria. Unlike Putin, Obama said the expected at the United Nations, including the need to defend democratic values and keep the world stable. But he didn’t clarify how he would achieve this in view of the instability in many arenas, mainly in the Middle East.

Obama’s speech, less than 18 months before the end of his second term, showed a leader in search of a legacy. Yes, he won the Nobel Peace Prize right after assuming office (though not for any diplomatic achievements), ended the long boycott of Cuba and reached a nuclear deal with Iran.

But stinging his chances of being remembered as a great statesman is the tragedy in the Arab world, with belated implications for Europe as the refugees stream in. Washington, as is clear from Obama’s policies over the last two years, no longer believes that it can impose solutions and achieve stability. Moscow is less hesitant.

The Dagestan connection

Putin’s motive for his recent moves have been described at length: keeping Syria as a strategic asset while gaining a foothold in the Mediterranean and maintaining a regional counterweight to the weakening United States. Even though the first airstrike was aimed at rebel groups that aren’t linked to the Islamic State, one can’t ignore Russia’s hostility to that group, which Putin mentioned in his UN speech.

In early September there was an attack on a Russian military base in Dagestan in the northern Caucasus. A few soldiers were killed, and a new Islamic State branch in the Caucasus took responsibility for the assault. Russia views the jihadi activity in Syria and Iraq and its inspiration to Muslims in the Caucasus as a potential risk on its home turf.

Another development that hasn’t been much addressed is the complex balance of power along the Syrian-Turkish border. The best forces operating against the Islamic State are the Kurdish groups that have taken over a long and narrow strip from north of Raqqa (where they endangered ISIS control over its declared capital) to Kobani. In places where Kurdish forces had boots on the ground backed by coalition airstrikes, the Islamic State usually retreated.

But such successes trouble the Turks, who are concerned that the Kurds will consolidate a long contiguous strip west to an enclave they control near the Assad-controlled Alawite region. This may be the reason Ankara, after many delays, let the Americans bomb ISIS with planes taking off from the Turkish air base at Incirlik.

The Turks are ostensibly taking part in the fight against the Islamic State, even though most of their attacks in Syria have been against the Kurds. Nearly 700 people have been killed in recent weeks in Turkish-Kurdish fighting, which is only a sideshow in the Syrian civil war.

How is all this connected to Russia? Moscow, which is also courting the Kurds, isn’t happy with Turkish air operations and Ankara’s new cooperation with Washington, as well as with President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s attempt to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria along the common border.

Some people think these factors pushed Putin into intervening. In any case, this is one more facet of the complex situation in Syria, where ethnic militias and rebel groups fight each other on one front while cooperating against Assad on another.

Assad’s position in October

The regime now holds only a small portion of the original Syria: Damascus, a corridor leading north to Homs and from there to Alawite coastal cities in the northwest, along with several scattered enclaves. The Russian expeditionary force has deployed in the northwest while Damascus is under threat.

The rebel groups are approaching Damascus from the east and south while the Islamic State is almost constantly bombarding centers of government, including the area of the presidential palace. The Islamic State is moving south, partly because the coalition is refraining from bombing areas south of a line connecting Homs and Tartus.

The entry of Russia into the picture may help stabilize the fronts, with the aid of ground reinforcements from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias. Ever since the signing of the nuclear accord in Vienna, Iran has increased its involvement in Syria, with some coordination with Russia. Israel is worried about Revolutionary Guard troops in the Mount Hermon area, and about Druze and Palestinian squads eyeing operations on the Israeli side.

Beyond its military implications, the Russian move now has strategic significance. It confirms the view that President Bashar Assad is not alone. Two powers, Russia and Iran, stand behind him and won’t let him fall.

Things developed rapidly regarding Putin’s visit to New York. Assad’s office announced that it had requested Russian planes in Syria, Russia’s parliament passed a resolution permitting the use of force in Syria, Russian planes conducted their first sorties, Putin announced he was concerned about Israeli attacks in Syria and, according to some sources, the Russians demanded that the Americans clear out of Syrian air space. All this happened within 48 hours.

Putin’s arrogant and powerful appearance in New York, like his moves in Syria, are designed to consolidate the new rules of the game. These will have implications for Israel.

Attacks in the Alawite region, in which Russian bases have been built, will now entail greater risks. In the past, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to retaliate after any Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon.

If Israel respects other players’ red lines, it will retain only a small area near Damascus and on the Syrian side of the Lebanese border if it plans to fight attempts to smuggle weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. (Israel has never taken responsibility for attacking weapons convoys in Syria. Foreign media have attributed more than 10 such attacks since 2013.)

Thus a clear red line that Israel drew at the very beginning of the civil war, and over which risks have been taken over the years — blocking sophisticated weaponry from reaching Hezbollah — is dissolving before our eyes.

Still, the Prime Minister’s Office continues to project business as usual, despite an urgent visit by Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow last week. Sources in Jerusalem have told reporters that during that visit, the Israelis were assured that their air force’s maneuver room over Syria would be maintained and that Russia accepted Israel’s security needs.

This doesn’t conform with reality in the region. Putin spoke publicly the next day, saying the exact opposite. Sure, we can continue taking the statements by the Prime Minister’s Office at face value, even regarding the visit to Moscow.

But anybody doing so shouldn’t stop at that. Perhaps, like the red queen in “Alice in Wonderland,” it’s best to start believing six impossible things before breakfast.