Analysis

Putin Will Stop at Nothing to Increase Mideast Influence at U.S.' Expense

America's seeming apathy in light of Russia's war crimes in Syria, undertaken in support of the Assad regime, sparks questions in Israel and elsewhere about Washington’s true commitment to defending its allies and friends in a crisis.

Russian warship Grisha class Corvette 617 "Mirazh" passes the bosphorus on its way to Syria on October 7, 2016 in Istanbul.

The horrific tragedy in Aleppo is only one episode in a more complex global battle, driven by Russia’s challenge to America’s international hegemony (which is in any case deteriorating apace). The Assad regime’s struggle for survival, backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, intersects with broader interests of Moscow. President Vladimir Putin apparently believes that the twilight period in Washington – the final days of the Obama administration, from now until the election, on November 8, and, then, more specifically, the weeks preceding the inauguration of the new president on January 20 – offers him greater leeway than in the past to create facts on the ground.

The joint offensive launched by Russia and the Syrian regime’s air force was planned as a war crime, in flagrant violation of international law. Russia’s forces and Assad’s pilots are deliberately targeting hospitals (no functioning emergency room remains in eastern Aleppo, which is under rebel control), ambulances, emergency rescue teams, water-purification and supply facilities, and people lined up at bakeries. In the rare cases in which aid convoys have approached the city, they too have been bombed, even as the Russians vow with unmitigated cynicism that they are fighting only extremist terrorists.

The regime is making extensive use of barrels filled with fuel that are dropped from the air; chlorine gas has also been used in some regions of the country. The massive pounding and systematic starvation of the civilian population in Aleppo and in the other areas under the rebels’ control are intended to wear residents down and create wandering masses of refugees. If the refugees continue to arrive in Europe and undermine stability in European Union countries, Putin will reap an important secondary gain. Such methods are not substantially different from the strategy employed by the Russians in its two wars in Chechnya. The difference is that the social networks did not exist then, and information about the earlier massacres reached the West late and in fragmentary fashion.

Ground fighting is still quite limited in Aleppo, apparently because the regime and its allies are afraid to endanger their relatively few remaining forces. Russian air power is also being felt in other parts of Syria; according to unofficial reports the Russians are now operating a third squadron, consisting of Sukhoi aircraft. Three large-scale Russian bases are now active in the Alawi region, in northwestern Syria: the maritime port of Tartus, Khmeimim airbase, near the city of Latakia, and a logistics base. Russia has also apparently deployed extensive ground forces around the bases to ward off possible rebel attacks.

The Assad regime began to step up its offensive at the end of September, following the predictable breakdown of the cease-fire declared by Russia with the coerced agreement of the United States. The current Russian offensive is apparently geared at consolidating the remaining strongholds of the regime and extending slightly the areas under its control in northern Syria. In this way, Russia will dictate the opening conditions of its approach to the new U.S. administration in January. Possibly the Russians think that Hillary Clinton will prove a tougher adversary in the Middle East than Barack Obama. God only knows what they think of Donald Trump. Moscow’s display of power is protecting its regional interests (in particular, ensuring that there is a Mediterranean port at its disposal), while also signaling that Russia, in contrast to other powers, stands by its friends regardless of their situation and their deeds.

In the background is also Russia’s desire to regain recognition as a major international power that cannot be ignored. In addition, Moscow is apprehensive about the Americans’ moves to expand NATO eastward and to deploy antimissile systems in countries belonging to the former Soviet bloc. The savage bombing of Aleppo is interconnected with the Russian invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine; Moscow’s unbridled threats against Ukraine and the Baltic states; provocative sorties near American aircraft carriers; cyberattacks by Russian hackers on computers in the West; and possible covert intervention by Moscow and its agents in the U.S. presidential election.

Russian and American experts told The New York Times this week that Putin is a megalomaniac in relentless pursuit of honor, who specializes in brinkmanship – but does not have suicidal tendencies. Therefore, the experts conclude, he will not risk a military confrontation with the United States, which Russia would undoubtedly lose, and which would deal a death blow to its already battered economy. Commentators on NBC-TV, however, claimed that relations between the two countries are at their lowest and most critical ebb since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Reports from Washington this week spoke of feverish consultations in the White House and the National Security Council about the possibility of attacking targets of the Assad regime with cruise missiles, which would minimize the risk to American forces. Moscow responded immediately with an announcement that it was deploying advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles in Syria. They are capable of intercepting cruise missiles.

Has Putin crossed the line of American apathy this time? Is the U.S. administration becoming concerned that its impotence in Syria is endangering not only Obama’s foreign policy legacy but also the other key mission remaining to the president: ensuring Clinton’s election? That’s the view being espoused by research institutes, media commentators and senators in Washington, although to date their analyses have not been reflected in the president taking serious action in Syria.

In an interview with Haaretz last month, Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, from Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, assailed the naivete the Americans have shown in Syria, in particular their agreement to the cease-fire terms dictated by Moscow last month. A joint article published on Thursday on the institute’s website by Orion and the INSS managing director, Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, speaks of a grim dichotomy in U.S.-Syria relations. According to Dekel and Orion, each of whom served as head of the General Staff’s strategic unit, the administration is insisting in presenting its alternatives as being limited to either diplomacy or war – and yet is actually heightening the potential of every military move to spiral into all-out war. In practice, the experts argue, the Americans did have alternatives, in the form of limited military activities, that could have been employed without embroiling Obama in a war. Even now, they maintain, the United States should be examining the possibility of attacking Syria’s air force planes or air-defense systems, with the aim of protecting civilian lives.

The view from Israel – or from Ukraine or the Baltic states – cannot but spark questions about Washington’s true commitment to take concrete steps to defend its allies and friends in a crisis. The struggle in Aleppo against the Assad regime was spearheaded initially not by Islamic State or Al-Qaida offshoots, but by rebel groups that the U.S. administration described as moderate and for which it expressed support. If the regime succeeds in capturing eastern Aleppo following the war of attrition it’s waging, it will be not only an important victory for Assad and the Russians, but also a symbol of American abandonment of the region.

If Assad and the Russians win the day in Aleppo, they might also decide to focus a renewed military effort in other areas, such as the Golan Heights, where the Syrian side of the boundary line is almost completely in rebel hands. Overblown self-confidence on the part of Assad, who has succeeded in clinging to power despite all the earlier predictions of his imminent downfall, is not a good thing for Israel. A month ago, the Syrian army fired surface-to-air missiles at Israeli planes as they attacked its positions. The introduction of advanced Russian systems, such as the S-300 and the S-400, into Syria constitutes a danger for Israel, as they could end up in the hands of the Syrian Army or, more dangerously, Hezbollah.

Israel has already been exercising caution in its activities in the north. The deployment of the Russian systems imperils IAF planes, too, even if Israel and Russia are successfully cooperating to avert dogfights. Israel is also showing caution in its public declarations. In the early years of the civil war in Syria, Israeli spokespersons condemned the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime. But Jerusalem has been silent since the onset of the active Russian intervention. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin several times in the past year, but there has not been a word of condemnation from Jerusalem about the murderous events in Aleppo. The political and diplomatic constraints are obvious – it wasn’t Netanyahu who invited the Russian bear into the neighborhood, and he has to be careful when the bear’s in the vicinity – but this is a morally problematic silence, particularly in light of the memory of the Holocaust.

Smoke billows over Gaza following an Israeli airstrike on the Strip on October 5, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Lieberman’s Gaza refrain

Wednesday was another turbulent day in the Gaza Strip. It began with no prior warning. A small Salafist group fired a rocket that landed in the center of Sderot, in southern Israel, causing minor damage; several people were treated for shock. Israel announced that it was holding the organization’s government responsible, and responded with a series of relatively massive air attacks against Hamas targets in the Strip. Some of the attacks were apparently aimed at an open area east of Khan Yunis, close to the border. As in the previous round, at the end of August – and despite the intensity of the bombings – Israel appears to be making an effort to avoid hitting civilians. For the moment, Hamas, notwithstanding aggressive statements by its leaders in the wake of the Israeli attacks, does not desire an escalation.

The periodic eruptions of fighting once every month or two have not changed the views of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman about Gaza. In various forums he continues to repeat what he said publicly when he took office last May: Greater escalation with Hamas is inevitable, he believes. And when that happens, Israel, he says, should seize the opportunity to remove the government run by that Islamist organization – something Israel refrained from doing in the three previous major military operations – in 2008, 2012 and 2014.

Lieberman is still in a minority on this issue. Both Netanyahu and the General Staff are otherwise inclined, and prefer to avoid a clash that would result in both Hamas’ fall and anarchy in the Gaza Strip. But the very fact that Lieberman voices his opinion regularly, in every official discussion about the situation there, could have an effect in the event of another confrontation.

The decision about whether to get involved in a broad round of fighting in the Strip is not necessarily in Israel’s hands. Hamas’ military wing, which at present seems to prefer the status quo, could change its mind. The Salafist groups also play a role, because their first attack since August, as took place Wednesday, dictates an exchange of blows between the sides. Whether the next round can be prevented from deteriorating into a more extensive round, as happened two years ago, depends on the behavior of Israel and Hamas from the moment firing begins.