New Russian Front Stretches From Vienna to Southern Syria

As well as stepping up airstrikes in support of the Assad regime, Moscow is also leading the diplomatic drive to keep the Syrian president in power for as long as possible.

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A Russian Su-24 bomber taking off on a night combat mission from Hemeimeem airbase in Syria, October 22, 2015.
A Russian Su-24 bomber taking off on a night combat mission from Hemeimeem airbase in Syria, October 22, 2015.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel’s escalation with the Palestinians is an urgent problem overshadowing important developments in other areas. Last week, for example, the Russian Air Force launched strikes on southern Syria against rebel targets, including some located as little as 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Israeli border. Just a few months ago, such a scenario would have seemed wildly unlikely. In the meantime, though, and thanks to understandings reached between Moscow and Jerusalem, Russia’s air strikes go on without leading to unintentional friction with the Israel Air Force. Although the two sides aren’t sharing information, it seems the Russian planes’ proximity to Israel was preceded by detailed messages, and that the appropriate channels of communication were opened.

Russia’s intent to bomb southern Syria could have been inferred from the agreement Moscow signed last week with Jordan to prevent confrontations, similar to the pact signed with Israel last September. Many of the Russian strikes have targeted the area surrounding Daraa, a town on the Jordanian border where the rebellion against President Bashar Assad began back in 2011.

Russia is apparently trying to win partial control of southern Syria back for Assad, after the Syrian president’s forces abandoned the area some six months ago. At the same time, Russia’s strikes east of Mount Hermon and Quneitra in the Golan Heights are aimed at helping Assad’s forces there make headway against rebel groups near the Israeli border. At the moment, Russia’s airstrikes on southern Syria have been significantly smaller than its activity in the north, where it is trying to rout the rebels out of provinces north of the Alawite stronghold, and aid Assad’s forces near Homs, Aleppo and Idlib.

Alongside its military operation, Russia is also renewing diplomatic efforts, focusing on the current gathering of foreign ministers (including Iran’s) in Vienna to discuss Syria’s future. According to Western diplomats, Russia’s increased efforts to save Assad began sometime in May-June, when the Syrian president desperately asked Moscow for help after his forces suffered a series of losses and he feared his lines of defense in Damascus, Homs and the Alawite region would fall.

In late August, Russia sent its air force to the Syrian port city of Latakia, and sent air defense forces and advisers along as well. Since then, while Russia has been attacking the rebels from the air, Assad’s lines of defense have become more stable; Russia has also been helping him try to retake additional areas.

On the diplomatic front, Russia is working toward a cease-fire agreement that would keep the Syrian dictator in power for a time, with a vague promise to step down after elections can be held in the future. Among the nations still concerned with what goes on in Syria, France and Saudi Arabia are adamant that Assad should step down immediately. The United States and Britain, however, have begun to mumble a bit, and it seems they’re probably willing to accept a solution that would see Assad leave slowly.

The number of daily Russian strikes passed 100 last week. Many of these attacks, despite Moscow’s declarations, target the moderate rebel groups who are receiving Western support. In the meantime, it seems Russia’s advances have been halted a bit, which is in line with Israeli intelligence agencies’ predictions. Despite the Russians’ sheer power, the rebels have not been quick to yield or retreat.

Despite the Kremlin’s aggressive tone, Russia also has some cause for concern. The U.S.-manufactured TOW 2 anti-tank missile has been making a name for itself in the Syrian army’s armored corps. And if Qatar supplies the rebels with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which remains a possibility, Russian planes and helicopters could face difficulties similar to those they saw in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Since the summer, Russia has been much more diligent in Syria than the United States has been (the two nations’ interests there certainly differ). But both Russia and Syria are weary of what the Americans call mission creep – a slow, crawling campaign that gets more complicated and widespread as it gets bigger and challenges in the field grow more complex. Russia, meanwhile, has also been accused of opening its new account on religious grounds: A senior figure in the Russian Orthodox church declared that the campaign in Syria is a “blessed struggle,” which was not well received in the Sunni Muslim world and even embarrassed Russia’s newfound partner, Iran.

Meanwhile, in Washington

In the long-term, Israel’s main current interest is what’s going on in Washington. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who visited the U.S. capital this week, was greeted warmly. He is there to discuss two related issues: Formulating the U.S. military aid package to Israel for the next 10 years (from 2017 onward); and guaranteeing the IDF’s military advantage in the region. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has made it seem as if the Obama administration is ready to move on, to look past the disagreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iranian nuclear program and discuss the new military aid package. The Democratic government doesn’t want to seem as if it’s abandoning Israel’s security, especially with only one year until the next presidential election.

Mr. Ya'alon goes to Washington: The Israeli defense minister greets his U.S. counterpart, Ashton Carter, last Wednesday.Credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

The details will likely become clear when Netanyahu visits Obama on November 9. As Gili Cohen reported, it’s likely that the Americans will up their annual aid by $1 billion initially, up from the current $3.1 billion. Subjects on the table include additional F-35 fighter jets, V-22 aircraft, as well as accurate ammunition for air and land forces, and additional funding to procure further defensive systems.

Also, as a direct result of the escalation, it seems the IDF will win the fight over the defense budget. The direct danger identified by senior IDF officers in last July’s Locker report (into future defense spending) was completely defused by the second or third stabbing attack. A Knesset discussion of the report was postponed indefinitely, and the prime minister – who has already declared that these hard times will necessitate further defense spending – apparently intends to utilize other budgetary resources, beyond the extra U.S. aid. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot will have an opportunity to implement his multiyear plan – which he has nicknamed “Gideon.”

However, there’s one mistake Eisenkot won’t make again. In mid-2014, the army announced it was freezing training exercises for all units due to budgeting issues. This month, training schedules took a hit due to the wave of terror attacks. Over the next year, however, the IDF will guarantee adequate training time for all operational units, perhaps requiring extra reserve call-ups to the West Bank, so as not to disrupt the regular forces’ training schedule.

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