Putin's Military Build-up in Syria Could Be a Game-changer for Israel

Now that the U.S. isn't aiming to topple him, and Russia and Iran are increasing their support, Assad has better chances of stabilizing his defense.


Several media reports over the last week have indicated a significant increase in the military aid that Russia is offering Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, including even the use of air crews and Russian fighter jets – all as part of efforts by Russia to sustain that regime. Although the latest efforts are drawing some feeble criticism from the United States, it seems more like lip service as compared to the original American stance that demanded Assad's ouster.

After four-and-a-half years of vicious civil war and despite the heavy blows he has sustained, it seems that for now Assad – who cannot currently hope to regain control of more than half of the territory of Syria that he’s lost – can continue clinging to power, propped up by Russian and Iranian aid, as well as by the West’s focus on the struggle against the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.

Specifically, The New York Times reported over the weekend that Russia has sent a new delegation of military experts to Syria, with the intention of stationing 1,000 advisers in the port city of Latakia. This is thought to be a sign that construction is beginning on a Russian military base in the Alawite enclave, along the northern Syrian coast, which is under Assad’s control.

The U.S. expressed concern over this report, and Secretary of State John Kerry warned his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that this move could further escalate the Syrian civil war.

Last week, several media outlets including the Daily Beast website, basing themselves on sources within opposition forces in Syria, reported the appearance of new armored personnel carriers supplied by Russia, and possibly Russian soldiers, in areas in which the fighting is going on.

In Israel, the daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Russian aircraft have been stationed in Syria and have recently been involved in combat there.

In June, “Haaretz” reported that Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence estimates that, despite a string of defeats suffered by the Syrian army in the preceding months, Russia and Iran were determined to ensure the regime’s survival. According to that assessment, the two countries decided to transfer more weapons to Assad and to provide him with intelligence that will help his struggle against the multiple rebel militias that are trying to topple him.

The two countries operated separately in the past but recently, since the signing in Vienna of the nuclear accord between Iran and the six powers in early July, there are signs of new coordination between Moscow and Tehran.

Last month there were reports of a visit to Moscow by General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who involved in helping the Assad regime, Hezbzollah and a host of terrorist and guerrilla groups in the Middle East. One can assume that this is further evidence of an attempt at increasing coordination between the two countries.

Moscow has supported Assad throughout the war. In the summer of 2013, at a critical juncture for the Syrian tyrant, when U.S. President Barack Obama was planning an aerial attack – in retaliation for the killing of more than 1,000 civilians near Damascus by the regime, which involved the use of chemical weapons – Russia initiated a last-minute agreement to destroy the regime’s chemical stockpiles in exchange for calling off the attack.

Over the last year, Obama and Western leaders have meanwhile softened their rhetoric against Assad in light of the rise of ISIS, and due to concerns that toppling Assad will allow a takeover of Damascus by extremist Sunni groups. That would likely lead to large-scale massacres of civilians belonging to sects loyal to the regime, mainly the Alawites.

The American-led military assault against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has indirectly helped Assad by weakening one of his major rivals, forcing it to spend time defending itself rather than continuing full-force attacks on the regime.

Now that the Americans aren’t striving to topple him, and Russia and Iran are increasing their support, Assad has better chances of stabilizing his defense despite the heavy losses he’s sustained, the poor morale in the army, and the continuing erosion by rebels of territory controlled by the regime.

For Israel, which for several years has not really supported the downfall of the Assad regime, preferring the present situation with a weakened president controlling a “small Syria” (covering less than half of the country's original territory) – the new developments are not encouraging.

According to foreign media reports to which Jerusalem rarely responds, every few months the Israel Air Force attacks arms convoys carrying Syrian war materiel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. These attacks, attributed to Israel and designed to prevent the terror group from acquiring advanced weapons systems, rarely provoke a response, given the weakness of Syria’s air force and the relatively limited capabilities of that country's, and Hezbollah’s, air defense systems.

However, if Russia is dispatching its jet fighters and establishing a new military base in Syria, Israel will have to deal with new and different kinds of constraints, especially if the aircraft are equipped with Russian air-to-air missiles. In recent years there has been much talk in Israel about a campaign conducted between wars: i.e., a low-profile military and intelligence effort aimed at preventing the empowerment of terrorist groups in the area, and at reducing the risk of another war. The entry of Russia into the Syrian arena changes the rules of this game.

In the early 1970s, when Russia sent military advisers to Egypt and Syria, a new division was set up hastily in the Military Intelligence’s central intelligence-gathering unit (known as unit 8200). This unit eavesdropped on Russian activity in the region. Israel’s relations with Russia have improved since then, but increased Russian military presence in the region may demand that Israel’s military intelligence undertake more forceful efforts to deal with this development.