Analysis

Russia's Planned Exit From Syria Could Spell Trouble for Israel

Russian reports say Putin has instructed withdrawal of forces, besides aircraft ■ Israel hopes move will pressure Iran to remove its forces as well, but Tehran has not signaled any such development

A Syrian woman walks past a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Bab Tuma in the old city of Damascus on March 14, 2019.
LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

In Syrian President Bashar Assad's palace in Damascus, they had almost no time to clear and reset the tables between all the important guests who came to visit this week. First came Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Another day, it was Iraqi military Chief of Staff Othman al-Ghanmi and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Hossein Baqeri. Soon, delegations from other Arab nations are expected to arrive to discuss the possibility of inviting Syria to the Arab League summit, scheduled to be held in Tunisia at the end of the month.

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Officially, the guests declared they had come to discuss the continued fight against “terrorists,” matters they also could have talked about over the telephone. But the central issue was Russia's next move, which has been keeping everyone occupied. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a working meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Shoigu – and according to reports from both Russia and Syria, Putin instructed them to begin withdrawing Russian forces and to begin with the Air Force deployment at the Khmeimim air base in northwest Syria.

It was reported on Tuesday that the first group of Russian planes, including Sukhoi-34 fighter-bombers, had left Syria and returned to Russia. The next day, it was reported that Russian attack planes that had already returned to Russia, had been sent back Syria – apparently to take part in the campaign for the Idlib region, where tens of thousands of rebels have concentrated.

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Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense and security committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, estimated that Moscow would leave about 1,000 military personnel in Syria – and it seems that Russia wants to make it clear, particularly to Assad, that Russia’s active military role is nearing its end after it “completed its mission and returned Syria to his control.”

This declaration is not totally accurate, as Idlib province is still waiting for a solution and can be expected to become a brutal battlefield if Turkey does not keep its commitments to Moscow and remove the members of Jabhat al-Nusra and Jish al-Islam present there. These are the two large forces that still have the military power to block Assad from regaining control of all of Syria.

Anger and tension between Russia and Turkey sparked in recent weeks when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked Russia to grant another extension without clarifying how he intended on fulfilling his end of the withdrawal agreement. Meanwhile, Russia is pushing to complete the move even through a military operation so it can proceed to the diplomatic stage and end the war.

The one who should be worried about the expected Russian withdrawal is Israel, which sees in Russia the most important guarantor for stopping Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, especially along the border on the Golan Heights. Russia, which did not keep its promise to keep the pro-Iranian forces dozens of kilometers to the east of the border, proposed in August establishing observation points along the border, with the purpose of preventing the entry of foreign forces to the border area – but only now has it completed the construction of a single observation point manned by Russian military police.

The Russian statement said that five more surveillance bases along the border will be ready for operation soon, and as far as Moscow is concerned, there is no reason for United Nations observers not to return to these bases and their patrol missions along the “Bravo Line,” which marks the Syrian side of the demilitarized buffer zone established in the separation of forces agreement from 1974 after the Yom Kippur War.

In practice, the UN observers began partially patrolling the border in August, but now it seems that these forces can soon return to carrying out their mission in full. The UN observers's return, when it actually happens, will testify not only to the return of Assad's control of the border, but also to Israel’s agreement that Syrian forces can come up to the Bravo Line – as well as the return to the cease-fire agreements that will force Israel to stop military incursions through this border – a border used by Israel to provide aid to the civilian population across the border.

Israel hopes that the removal of Russian forces will provide Moscow with more leverage over Iran to demand it withdraw its forces – but Tehran has yet to show any sign that it intends on adopting the Russian move.

The official relations between Syria and Iraq are also growing stronger, and this is particularly worrying given the announcement of the intention to reopen the important Al-Qa’im border crossing between the two countries near the city of Al-Bukamal.

Syria and Iraq are connected through three main border crossings. One, near al-Tanf, is controlled by the American forces still in Syria and whose mission is to prevent Iranian forces from entering Syria via Iraq. The second, al-Rabia in the northeast corner of Syria, is controlled – for now – by the Syrian Kurdish forces. The third, the al-Qa’im crossing, is under the control of the Assad regime and could serve as a convenient crossing point not only for Iraqi goods but also for soldiers and weapons from Iran passing through Iraq to Syria.

Syria has been heavily pressuring the Kurds to hand over the territory they control, and has presented them with two possibilities: Reconciliation with the regime, or the use of force against them. Reconciliation means handing over the land they took during their fight against the Islamic State group to the regime in return for a promise to preserve their political status and their rights in the government to be formed after the war's end. If the Kurds do not accept the demands, the regime is expected to open a new front against them that would endanger their chances for a unique status, or at least equal civil rights. The two possibilities guarantee that the northernmost crossing will wind up in the government's hand, which will multiply the risk of weapons flowing from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon. 

This shows the importance of the American troop presence in Syria, which guarantees not only the Kurds’ safety from Syrian or Turkish attacks, but also enables Kurdish control over the border crossing. The question now is who will manage to convince U.S. President Donald Trump to leave his troops in Syria, or at least to postpone their withdrawal.