Russian President Vladimir Putin thought he could succeed where the U.S.’s then-President Barack Obama failed. Pacify Syria, rescue the regime of his client, President Bashar Assad, and balance the conflicting interests of Iran and Israel in the war-torn country. All this he did with a relatively small investment: the deployment of a couple of dozen aircraft and 2,000 men. As foreign campaigns go, it was power projection on the cheap. The United States on a similar mission would have used a force 10 times the size – aircraft carrier groups and hundreds of fighter jets, aerial tankers and electronic warfare planes. Not to mention boots on the ground.
But Russia could pull it off thanks to the cannon fodder supplied by Iran. Tens of thousands of Shi’ite mercenaries, mainly refugees from Afghanistan, propped up Assad’s failing battalions. Hezbollah fighters came from Lebanon to carry out the more difficult operations. Russia made do with small teams of special-force troops and, where more muscle was needed, its own mercenaries.
It was a relatively small investment with few casualties and not, as some predicted two years ago, a rerun of the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
With perfect timing, and taking advantage of the vacuum left by Obama’s decision not to get involved in Syria, Putin had put Russia back on the geopolitical map. He made a surprise visit to Damascus in December to declare: Mission accomplished. He should have learned from former U.S. President George W. Bush never to say that – because now everything is starting to fall apart for the Russians.
There was last month’s Sochi conference, where attempts to agree a political process for Syria’s future under Assad, with the usual farce of elections, failed even before the delegates arrived. Turkey has launched a large-scale incursion into northwestern Syria, in an attempt to prevent Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces from establishing a military presence on its border. Meanwhile, the Turks are clashing with the Iranians as well, and as of Monday with regime forces too.
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Much more worrying for Russia is that in the east of the country, another Kurdish force – the Syrian Democratic Forces, which also includes Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian forces – is widening its control of areas once held by the Islamic State. The SDF is now the only player in Syria with U.S. military support: During a clash 10 days ago between the SDF and regime forces working together with Russian mercenaries, the United States launched a devastating airstrike. The Kremlin still won’t acknowledge any casualties, but unofficial reports from Russia claim that as many as 200 Russian mercenaries died.
And then last week there was the first direct confrontation between Israel and Iran.
The Turkish front is less concerning for Putin, since it doesn’t directly threaten Russia’s main interests. The clashes in the northeast are a much larger problem as they are sending coffins back home to Russia – the last thing Putin needs before the presidential election in mid-March.
For now at least, the Israeli-Iranian front may not directly put Russian personnel in the line of fire. But it is a much greater threat to the Assad regime itself. Damascus is close to the Israeli border and Assad, with Iranian encouragement, is trying to assert himself by firing anti-aircraft missiles at Israel Air Force planes.
For the past two and a half years, the deal between Jerusalem and Moscow was simple: Israel allowed Russia to resupply Assad’s army and help the regime – through aerial bombardments of rebel-held areas, indiscriminately killing thousands of civilians – to retake large swaths of territory. Russia, meanwhile, turned a blind eye as Israel continued its periodic attacks on convoys and depots of Iranian-supplied weapons destined for Hezbollah. Russia collaborated with Iran in reviving the regime, while not intervening when Israel struck at Iran’s proxies.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that Russia prevent Iran’s forces from building permanent bases on Syrian soil, Putin tried to strike a compromise. Iran continued entrenching its Shi’ite militias, but at the same time didn’t come too close to the Israeli border or begin building large bases.
That balance can no longer hold. The decision by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to send a drone into Israeli airspace in the early hours of Saturday February 10, followed by Israel’s retaliation against the Iranian command unit that launched the drone and the ensuing air battle between Israeli fighter jets and Syrian air defense batteries, was proof that Russia can no longer contain the interests of all the different sides within Syria.
Putin has utilized “hybrid warfare” – a combination of military power, deniable proxies and cyberattacks – to destabilize neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine, which tried to get too close to the West. Relatively small investments for major gain.
But just like Russian interference with the U.S. presidential election, where the Kremlin wanted only to undermine America’s democratic process but never actually believed it could help get Donald Trump elected, he may have gone too deep. What was supposed to be an exercise in troublemaking is, despite Trump’s reluctance, now a full-blown confrontation with the U.S. intelligence services.
Managing a multitrack Middle East policy and engaging simultaneously with all of the regional players takes time, resources and, especially, experience. Until recently, the United States had the combination of seasoned diplomats, military and intelligence officers – with extensive contacts and time spent in the region – to maintain such a complex operation.
Under President Trump, many of these professionals have left the administration, and there is no clear sense of direction from the White House for those remaining. But the lack of any real U.S. presence or policy doesn’t mean someone else can just come along and take over its traditional role.
It’s not just that the Kremlin doesn’t have anything resembling this kind of network. Putin’s centralized way of doing business means that every decision goes through him in Moscow. This isn’t helping Russia keep a handle on evolving events on the ground, but it is an advantage for Netanyahu – who is currently the regional player with the best personal relationship with Putin.
There are currently two schools of thought within the Israeli intelligence community. The skeptics believe Putin will not give up on his Shi’ite boots on the ground and will ultimately limit Israel’s freedom to operate in the skies above Syria – pushing Israel to make a difficult choice between sitting on the sidelines while Iran and Hezbollah build up their outposts or confronting Russia as well. The optimists believe Putin knows Israel has the power to jeopardize its achievements and threaten the Assad regime, and will therefore rein in the Iranians.
Netanyahu’s team has been working closely with the Russian president for years, and the two leaders speak regularly on the phone and meet every few months. When they’re on their own, with just fellow Likud lawmaker Zeev Elkin to interpret, does Netanyahu openly threaten to destabilize the Assad regime? Probably not. The implied threat is enough.
Putin will have to make the call on Israel or Iran soon – or risk losing all he has invested in Syria.