Analysis

How Israel Could Benefit From Russia's Control of the Assad Alliance

Israel and Hezbollah are usually only two mistakes away from a war. But a potential mediator has come on the scene.

Hezbollah fighters parade during a ceremony to honor fallen comrades in Tefahta, Lebanon, February 18, 2017.
Mohammed Zaatari / AP

It seems Lt. Gen. Alexander Zhuravlev still hasn’t received the respect from the media that he deserves. Last July, Zhuravlev replaced Col. Gen. Alexander Dvornikov as head of Russia’s forces in Syria. These are a few thousand soldiers accompanied by three air force squadrons, antiaircraft systems and a few ships that over the past year have saved the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In practice, Zhuravlev heads the military alliance that’s keeping the murderous Syrian dictatorship alive and gradually helping Assad win back pieces of his country. Overlooked in these efforts is that Russia has outstripped Iran as the power dictating the Assad alliance’s moves.

Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani is the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, which is responsible for Tehran’s military operations abroad. Soleimani even earned a big profile in The New Yorker a few years ago.

But it’s Zhuravlev, someone little known in the West, who with President Vladimir Putin decides on the alliance’s next moves. This is happening after the general’s greatest victory: Aleppo’s surrender in December after a merciless siege led by Russia’s air force that crushed the rebels.

Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported on the regime’s latest moves in the Syrian section of the Golan Heights. A bit away from the Israeli border, in the Golan’s north, Assad’s forces are gradually retaking control of a few areas.

After a campaign of siege, starvation and shelling, a few villages surrendered and swore allegiance to Assad. Similar negotiations are now underway with three more villages in the Mazra’at Beit Jann enclave. Between Quneitra and Damascus, the government is gradually driving out the remnants of rebel control.

But the Golan front remains a secondary one. The Russians and Assad are concentrating on expanding their control over the large cities in Syria’s center and north. In recent weeks, a new move to conquer the remaining half of the city of Dara’a, the cradle of the revolt in southern Syria near the Jordanian border, seems to be underway.

The Trump administration wants to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria, The Wall Street Journal reported early this month. For now, the success of such a move looks unlikely, despite the joint assessments by the Russians, Iranians, Assad officials and Hezbollah.

A fierce debate is being conducted in Iran over the financial support for Hezbollah’s operations. President Hassan Rohani wants to transfer some of the money for Iran’s use. The conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards oppose the change.

On Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hezbollah is suffering a morale crisis because of its heavy losses in Syria some 1,700 killed and more than 6,000 wounded. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has reported that Hezbollah fighters are frustrated by Soleimani, who they think considers them Arab cannon fodder.

The friction in Iran raises the importance of Russia in the Assad alliance. But is this necessarily a bad thing for Israel? Israeli defense officials are debating that question.

Some are worried about Russia’s increasing power and the growing coordination with the United States, based on U.S. President Donald Trump’s friendly attitude toward Moscow. They fear that the two superpowers will agree to divide up power; this would benefit Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and let the Iranians keep a strategic outpost on the Syrian Golan Heights after Assad regains control of the entire Syrian Golan.

Others, however, see Russia’s ascendance as a potential advantage. The main danger of an Israeli war in the north is related to a scenario of mutual misunderstandings. This almost happened with Hezbollah in January 2015 after the killing (attributed to Israel) of Hezbollah member Jihad Mughniyeh and the Iranian general with him, near Quneitra.

Usually the two sides are only two mistakes away from a war. But now they potentially have a mediator. Russia has no interest in a war between Israel and Hezbollah, which at least indirectly is now a Russian asset. The Assad regime too could suffer if it had to help Hezbollah in a war against Israel.

The military coordination between Israel and Russia, whose main goal is to prevent unintended clashes in the air, is more effective than ever. It seems the Russians are showing pragmatism and flexibility. A few months ago I wrote here on the deployment of advanced Russian antiaircraft systems at the Khmeimim air base in northwest Syria.

The radar there covers all Israel’s air traffic, all the way to the air force bases in the northern Negev. It seems some Israeli leaders fear that the Russian presence would limit the air force’s freedom in the north.

But for now, Arab media reports of Israeli attacks on Hezbollah convoys and weapons stores in Syria continue. Those reports claim that Israeli planes are doing their thing from a distance while they’re still over Lebanon or even over the Mediterranean. These areas too are within Russian radar range, but Moscow may not care too much. If any weapons destroyed in attacks are Russian-made, that could lead to new arms deals with Hezbollah and with Iran, which writes the checks for Hezbollah.

America first

The Russian dominance in the region is directly connected to the dramatic weakening of Washington’s standing. The Obama administration sort of checked out of the Syrian affair back when it declined to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against civilians in the summer of 2013.

From then on, Obama and his team did everything to avoid intervening to halt the humanitarian disaster caused by the Assad regime; it shifted its focus to the war against the Islamic State. Things went so far that U.S. intelligence officials admitted to their Israeli colleagues that they didn’t know what the president’s policy in the region was anymore, except for the instruction to avoid any complications that would reflect badly on the administration.

Looking back, it’s hard to ignore the link between the Obama administration’s reduced involvement in Syria, including the halt of efforts to replace Assad and the progress with Iran that led to the nuclear agreement signed in July 2015.

An Iranian news website quoted the head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran’s parliament threatening Trump this week; he warned the U.S. president not to dare try to expose all the agreements related to the Vienna agreement. His warnings followed barbs and threats between Washington and Tehran after the Iranian ballistic-missile test at the end of January. The Obama administration basically chose to ignore the previous missile test in May, less than a year after the nuclear agreement was signed.

The Middle East Media Research Institute has raised the possibility, based on statements by top officers in the Revolutionary Guards, that Tehran believed the Obama administration might not act after tests of missiles with a range below 2,000 kilometers; that is, missiles that could endanger Israel but not Western Europe. The nuclear agreement with Iran doesn’t include any mention of Iran’s missile forces, but a UN Security Council resolution bans such tests.

Israeli intelligence officials have reached a sort of consensus: The Vienna agreement may be filled with holes, but it’s also essential. A good chance exists that the agreement will stop Iran’s progress toward a nuclear-weapons capability for almost a decade.

Barack Obama was a true friend of Israel. Despite the curses showered on him in Israel, he made sure to provide Israel with unprecedented military aid which many defense officials say would have been much larger if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hadn’t made sure to insult him during the dispute over the Iranian deal.

Of course, this shouldn’t stop the debate on the Obama administration’s mistakes in Syria, to a certain extent in Iran, and also in its alienating attitude toward Egypt’s leadership. The trouble is that in the United States, as in Israel, these fierce disputes are being conducted almost totally along party lines, which doesn’t allow the impartial examination of these claims.