The Cold War Is Warming Up Again – in Syria

Analysis | Syria has become the playing field of the world powers and those aspiring to become such powers, but Israel is destined to play only a supporting role in the drama.

As it nears the end of its fifth year, the civil war in Syria long ago ceased being just a battle over control of the country, a major clash between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims or the largest humanitarian disaster in the Middle East this century. The war in Syria is all of these, but it is also the preferred playing field for a number of world powers and for countries that mistakenly think they are world powers.

Listening to the informed analyses of defense officials, intelligence experts and foreign diplomats on developments in Syria, one can almost hear the theme song from the 1949 classic spy movie “The Third Man” in the background. The war in Syria, along with the monumental human suffering it has brought in its wake, to some extent reflects a return to the days of the Cold War. It involves a network of intrigues, shifting alliances and plots that could have easily been found in the decades following World War II Vienna, Berlin or Saigon.

Against the backdrop of major terrorist attacks in recent weeks in Sinai, Beirut and then in Paris – all of which have close connections to the battle raging in Syria – several senior Israel Defense Force brass have begun to describe the new situation as a third world war. Although their comments involve a bit of intentional exaggeration, since the scope of what is happening now and the world wars are of entirely different dimensions, the comparison reflects a sense that the current battle is global, that its violence could suddenly erupt at widely distant locations from one another and could strike at countries that had been considered relatively calm and safe, and whose citizenry have barely given a thought to the slaughter taking place in Syria.

The pace of events has been dizzying. Since last summer, Syria, along with other countries, has seen a dramatic turn of events. First, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control of increasingly larger portions of the country in the face of assaults led by several of the more than 150 rebel factions currently operating there.

This in turn led to three developments: The Assad regime intensified its brutal aerial bombardments, directed at areas of the country which are under the control of the opposition; hundreds of thousands of civilians caught between rival forces and hostilities lost all hope that things would improve and began a desperate effort to flee, resulting in a wave of refugees landing on European shores in recent weeks; and Russia, in response to an urgent request for help from Assad, deployed a major military presence in northern Syria at the end of August – which now numbers dozens of aircraft and at least 4,000 soldiers and advisers – in an effort to save the Syrian dictator’s regime.

A senior IDF officer acknowledged a few days ago that Israel had not anticipated the prospect of advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missiles would be deployed “in our backyard” in northern Syria, or of cruise missiles flying across that country as part of a Russian assault on the rebels, but these are just a few of the developments that have come to pass.

The Russians announced the deployment of the anti-aircraft system following the downing of one of their fighter aircraft by a Turkish air force plane on November 24, and has since announced a series of tough economic sanctions against the Turks. For the first time, the United States dispatched a small group of special forces that is due to take part in the fighting on the ground in northern Iraq and in Syria against the Islamic State, also called ISIS.

Meanwhile, Germany is deploying a small military force of its own, which will provide logistical support in the anti-ISIS effort. Last Wednesday, the British parliament voted to approve aerial attacks against the violent Islamic organization in Syria, in contrast to its refusal to give the green light to similar plans against the Assad regime in the summer of 2013, after it was disclosed at the time that the regime had used chemical weapons against civilians.

Shortly after Parliament’s vote in London, Britain launched its first aerial attack on Syria; this followed bombardments by the French air force in response to last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris. At the same time, Russia has been conducting its own massive assaults since September, directed not only against ISIS, but also at many other anti-Assad rebel militias.

But the international effort is not a coordinated one. Frequently the countries involved have clearly conflicting interests. The parties involved are sometimes working at cross-purposes. Some of the initial Russian aerial sorties were directed at provoking American fighter planes operating in Syria, and when one of the rebel groups there downed a Russian helicopter during the search for the pilots of the plane shot down by the Turks – the rebels used a missile made in the United States to carry it out.

Gradually, when the Russians became aware of the scope of the challenge they were facing and the measure of the rebels’ tenacity, they refrained from provoking the West.

Now it appears, however, that the Western powers would not object if Moscow continues to sustain some blows as a result of its war in support of Assad. Indeed, in the West it is hoped that an exhausted Russia will reach the point where the nature of a diplomatic solution to the problem will be determined, which in the future will hopefully lead to a cease-fire.

Russia and the Western forces have a common enemy in Syria and Iraq in the form of ISIS, but that’s just about the only issue on which they can agree. The terrorist attacks in Paris sharpened the change in Western priorities, which had already begun in the summer of 2014 with the murder by ISIS of American and European hostages.

Optimistic assumptions

The United States, Britain and France are seeking first of all to deal a severe blow to ISIS, only after which will they revert to their original goal of removing the Assad regime from power. They also seek to enlist Kurdish militias and Sunni rebel groups, which are considered more moderate, in the fighting on the ground.

From the standpoint of the West, eliminating ISIS as a key factor in the picture should pave the way for applying collective pressure on Assad, leading to his ultimate resignation. That would likely come in return for coming up with arrangements (details of which remain vague) that ensure the security of the Alawite minority religious community, to which Assad himself belongs, and the redivision of Syria’s power structure, if not the country’s official partition.

At the moment, the Western strategy in Syria appears to rely on too many overly optimistic assumptions. The main power leading the diplomatic talks in Vienna on Syria’s future is Russia, which has its own goals in mind. Most of the Syrian rebel militias are avoiding the talks entirely, which can be understood in light of the fact that the Russians are continuing to bomb the bases of more the moderate of these factions, while warning of the danger that ISIS poses.

Israel is only playing a supporting role in the major drama. In the middle of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made surprising public comments about the fact that the Israel Air Force from time to time carries out attacks in Syria to foil anti-Israel assaults initiated by Iran in the Golan Heights, as well as to thwart the smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

A day prior to his comments, Netanyahu met on the sidelines of the Paris climate change summit in Paris with Russian President Vladimir Putin and praised the military cooperation between the two countries, in an effort to head off any collisions between aircraft of the two countries’ air forces over Syria and in its environs. According to Arab media, on two occasions last month, the Israel bombed storehouses or convoys with weapons near Damascus airport that were destined for Hezbollah. Russia and Israel did not disclose details regarding their coordination mechanisms, but military experts believe there is a direct connection with Russian operations rooms in northern Syria.

It can also be assumed that Israel’s announcement to the Russians of its attacks in Syria is not provided beforehand but rather in real-time, so the Russians can’t tip off the Assad regime or Hezbollah in advance. In any event, the S-400 missile system that the Russians have deployed in northern Syria is equipped with long-range radar, so if a fighter jet takes off from an IAF base in Israel, it would be detected on Russian monitoring screens in Syria.

Despite the accolades that Netanyahu and Putin had for each other, Israel is seen mainly as trying to play its limited hand in the best way possible. Israel hadn’t wanted Russia to intervene on Assad’s side.

At a conference held by the Institute for National Security Studies last week, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s national security adviser until two years ago, said from Israel’s standpoint, a victory for the Assad regime with Russian and Iranian assistance would be a more dangerous scenario in the coming years than an outcome favoring ISIS.

Despite ISIS’ murderous ideology, the operational capabilities of Iran and Hezbollah are still immeasurably greater, and their capacity to cause Israel headaches is considerable in the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. That’s why, even if it never officially admits it, the Israeli government is in practice wishing for the success of all of the parties to the war in Syria, hoping that their mutual attrition will drag on as long as possible.