Analysis |

Without Effort, Russia Restricted the Strongest Air Force in the Middle East

New Russian systems in Syria track every Israeli fighter right on takeoff, thus limiting operational freedom against Hezbollah Deciphering Putin's real intentions How Iran could be the big winner in Mosul.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry shows a Russian S-400 defense missile system deployed at Hmeimim airbase in Syria, November 26, 2015.
Russian S-400 missile system at Hmeimim airbase in Syria, November 26, 2015.Credit: AFP PHOTO / RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Over the past few weeks, Russia has finished beefing up its aerial defenses in northern Syria. The Washington Post, after interviewing American experts, published a map last week showing the estimated radius of coverage of Russia’s S-300 and S-400 systems, which are bolstered by anti-aircraft missiles on ships in the port of Tartus. The 380-kilometer radius covers Lebanon, much of Turkey and Jordan, the eastern Mediterranean until out beyond Cyprus, a bit of Iraq, and Israel all the way to the northern Negev.

The paper said the Pentagon isn’t sure whether, if necessary, it could penetrate these aerial defense systems, since the question hasn’t yet arisen. Presumably, America has electronic warfare systems capable of disrupting even dense anti-aircraft coverage. But the Post said Russia’s coverage limits Washington’s ability not only to launch air strikes on Syrian military targets, but also to create no-fly zones to protect civilians, an idea both U.S. presidential candidates say they support.

Russia’s beefed-up deployment also affects Israel, which, according to foreign media reports, has launched numerous air strikes on arms convoys from Syria to Hezbollah in recent years. Based on the Washington Post’s map, an Israeli plane couldn’t take off from Tel Nof airbase without being tagged by Russian radar.

Ever since it destroyed Syria’s anti-aircraft systems in 1982, Israel’s air force has enjoyed absolute aerial superiority (and therefore, almost complete freedom of action) on the northern front. But that effectively ended the moment Russia decided to beef up its aerial defenses around Tartus. Almost without effort, the Russians managed to restrict the strongest air force in the Middle East.

The limitations aren’t just military, but also diplomatic. Israel and Russia have set up a mechanism to prevent clashes in Syrian airspace, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin four times over the last year to further that purpose.

Having no other choice, Netanyahu has nurtured his Russian romance. But in reality, this romance is about as romantic as Donald Trump’s groping of women. It’s a romance to which Israel was forced to consent once the Russian bear decided to move into its backyard.

Russia apparently reinforced its aerial defenses in response to American condemnations of its bombing of Aleppo, and due to concern, apparently unwarranted, that the Obama administration might actually take military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Though Russia’s economy is crumbling, Putin keeps pushing the envelope, including with frequent hints about the danger of nuclear war, attempts to sabotage the U.S. presidential election and surprising moves in the Mideast, like this month’s announcement that Russia and Egypt will hold a joint military exercise.

But since Russia invests great effort in confusing and deterring its rivals, its real intentions are hard to decipher. And the fact that Israel’s intelligence community curtailed research into Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed doesn’t make understanding Putin’s plans any easier.

The journal “Eshtonot,” published by Israel’s National Defense College, made a first effort to explore these questions in depth in its latest issue. This issue features a wide-ranging analysis of Russia’s intervention in Syria, its strategic significance and operative lessons by Dr. Dmitry Adamsky, a senior lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya who also teaches at military colleges.

Adamsky described the Kremlin’s decision making as a well thought-out process based on long-term strategic thinking. He said Russia sees itself as engaged in self-defense against Western aggression in both Eastern Europe (the conflict in Ukraine and efforts to expand NATO) and the Arab world (NATO’s operation in Libya and the West’s abandoned effort to promote regime change in Syria).

Russia’s intervention in Syria, he wrote, is its first such move of the post-Soviet era and its biggest military operation since the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Russian army’s Central Command rehearsed the operation, code-named Operation Caucasus 3, about two months before sending forces to Syria in September 2015.

Russia had two main reasons for intervening, Adamsky wrote. First, it wanted to protect Assad’s regime, and through him Russia’s interests in Syria – first and foremost its warm-water port in Tartus. Second, it feared that a victory by Sunni jihadists in Syria would spur Islamist terror inside Russia. Russia has at least 20 million Muslims, mostly Sunnis, and the uprising against Assad has attracted thousands of volunteers from the Caucasus.

Russia, he continued, feared the Assad regime was about to fall, and that a rebel victory would deprive it of both its foothold on the Mediterranean and its web of alliances in the region.

In addition, Russia wanted to break its international isolation and weaken the sanctions imposed on it over the fighting in Ukraine. Sending forces to Syria diverted Western attention from Ukraine and forced the West to treat Russia as a key player in the Mideast and worldwide.

The Russians sought to restore the contiguity of the areas under Assad’s control and thereby spark diplomatic negotiations that would protect their interests. Their combat doctrine, brutal methods of fighting and desired end game were all based on their experience in the Second Chechen War a decade earlier, which ended in complete victory for Moscow.

After a year of fighting in Syria, Adamsky wrote, Russia can allow itself to be cautiously optimistic.

But the same isn’t true of Israel, he implied. Since Hezbollah is participating in the Russian-led campaign, the organization is learning sophisticated Russian combat doctrines and tactics. This knowledge could greatly increase its military capabilities, especially in deploying special forces to rack up offensive achievements in a future clash with Israel.

Adamsky’s article would seem to be required reading for senior Israeli military officials. Russia’s presence in Syria has sharply changed the strategic reality in which the Israel Defense Forces operates.

And as an aside, the defense minister’s office is currently occupied by someone who grew up on the doctrine of Soviet might and views the world suspiciously and skeptically. So perhaps Adamsky’s article might also help IDF officers to better understand Avigdor Lieberman.

Russia’s success in Syria isn’t yet complete, nor has Putin met his original timetable. In autumn 2015, he expected a three-month offensive in which Russian air power and Syrian troops, with Iranian backing, would capture Aleppo and Idlib and clear the rebels from northeast Syria. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who heads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, visited Moscow and promised to send more than 2,000 Revolutionary Guard fighters, and Russia hoped this would end the most active and dangerous phase of its Syrian intervention.

The Iranian forces did arrive, but other problems quickly emerged. Assad’s troops, worn down by years of fighting, barely functioned; Hezbollah suffered heavy losses; and Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, ordered the Iranian troops home, leaving only a few hundred advisers in Syria. This forced Russia to move to plan B, exemplified by its carpet bombing of Aleppo in recent months – a war crime committed in full view of the world, with no regard for the consequences.

Assad has regained some territory and blocked the rebels’ momentum. But the Sunni rebels haven’t stopped fighting, and so far, Russia’s intervention doesn’t seem to have brought the end of the war any nearer.

While the Americans are letting Russia do as it pleases in Syria, they are focusing on Iraq. This week the Iraqi army, backed by Shi’ite militias and American forces, began its drive to oust ISIS from Mosul. The timing isn’t coincidental. Aside from the favorable weather conditions, the U.S. presidential election is just three weeks away, so the Obama administration wanted a display of military might to compensate somewhat for its weakness in the face of the ongoing Syrian slaughter.

The Mosul offensive is expected to end in an Iraqi victory. But the Americans haven’t given enough thought to what will happen the day after. Already, there are signs of tension between Iraq’s Shi’ite government, the Kurdish forces attacking from the north and Turkey, which is helping from the air, over who will rule the city. America will have trouble preventing massacres of Mosul’s Sunni population by Shi’ite militias. And apparently it is deliberately ignoring the benefits Tehran will reap if Iraq’s Shi’ite government wins the battle with overt Iranian aid.

The Obama administration is also ignoring Iran’s role in the launch of missiles at American ships by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Tehran is the one arming the Houthis, and thus has influence over their actions. By turning a blind eye to Iranian provocations and subversion throughout the Middle East, Washington is enabling Tehran to increase its regional influence.

The reason is obvious: It wants to protect its nuclear agreement with Iran. And for this end, it seems virtually all means are kosher, from making Iran its de facto partner (in Iraq but also, appallingly, in Syria, where Tehran is abetting Assad in mass murder) to exaggerating the deal’s benefits.

In service of the latter goal, Washington has taken several Israeli intelligence assessments out of context. These assessments don’t share Netanyahu’s total pessimism about the deal. But the Obama administration’s attempts to paint them as enthusiastic over it are far from the truth.

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