GOVERNMENTS AND pundits were stunned last September when Russia sent an expeditionary force into Syria.
The immediate goal seemed to be to safeguard the survival of the beleaguered Bashar Assad regime and Russian naval assets in the port of Tartus. But it soon became clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin had other major strategic goals.
On the face of it, Putin was challenging Western sanctions and NATO military moves after Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its military support for the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. But Russia’s interest in Syria goes much deeper. It is driven by a burning desire to reinstate its Middle Eastern presence and influence, after an absence of three decades, and the great power status it lost with the crumbling of the Soviet empire.
Moreover, after Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared the creation of a new province, in the North Caucasus in June 2015, Russia shifted its threat assessment from the Caucasus emirate to IS militants in the region. Moscow’s Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service have been monitoring over 2,800 Russian citizens who left to fight alongside IS in Syria and Iraq, and the Russian government is deeply concerned over IS influence among Russia’s 20 million Muslims.
Putin exploited American weakness on Syria and European confusion over the massive wave of refugees from the region.
US President Barack Obama appeared to be caught off guard by the bold Russian move. His administration responded with contradictory steps, criticizing the Russian attacks against moderate pro- Western rebels, while coordinating “deconflicting” talks with Moscow to avoid accidental clashes between the Russian and US militaries.
The Russian intervention in Syria was planned months before the signing of the P+5 nuclear deal with Iran. The Iranians, despite a major military effort, failed to stop the advance of the Syrian opposition forces. Indeed, Tehran was probably the regional architect of the Russian move, coordinating the positions of its allies, Hezbollah and the Shi’ite government in Baghdad. As early as September 2014, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said Russia had been calling “for months for a new coalition to fight against Islamic State, which would include Syria, Iraq and Iran.”
Although Russia has a direct long-term interest in destroying the IS caliphate and neutralizing the threat of thousands of Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in its ranks, the Russian bombings are targeting mainly the less radical Islamists and the more moderate opposition.
A late December airstrike in Eastern Ghouta killed Salafist leader Zahran Alloush, the commander of Jaysh al- Islam, the largest armed opposition group.
This could result in further instability inside rebel-held areas and sabotage the upcoming UN negotiations for a solution to the Syrian civil war. By its actions, Russia is endangering the interests of the main sponsors of the Syrian opposition forces: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. The Russian intervention comes at a price.
Turkey’s reaction, on both the rhetorical and military levels, was swift. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated Ankara’s opposition to any political transition in Syria that includes Russia’s ally Assad. Several cases of Russian fighters penetrating Turkish territory, Russian bombings of pro-Turkish Turkmen tribesmen in northern Syria and Russia’s flirting with the Syrian Kurds led to the downing in late November of a Russian warplane that violated Turkish airspace, the first time a NATO country has shot down a Russian plane since the Korean War.
The Saudis have also taken a strong stand. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir threatened his country would embrace a military option if Assad did not step down as part of a political transition. In early December, Saudi Arabia organized a gathering in Riyadh of most of the Syrian opposition groups who agreed to form “a new and more inclusive body to guide the diverse and divided opponents of President Assad in a new round of planned talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.” A few days later the Saudis announced the formation of a 34-state “Islamic military coalition” – excluding Shi’ite nations – to fight global terrorism and challenge the Russian-Iranian alliance.
And after dozens of Islamist Saudi clerics called on Arab and Muslim countries to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to jihad against Syria’s government and its Iranian and Russian backers, the Sunni Islamist rebel group Ahrar Al-Sham issued a joint statement with 40 other rebel groups calling for a “regional coalition” against Russia and Iran.
Indeed, Turkey and the Gulf states may match Russian intervention by stepping up their own assistance to the rebels, for example by providing anti-aircraft missiles and putting Russian planes deployed in Syria at risk.
As for IS, it challenged Moscow’s military intervention by bombing a Russian Metrojet flight through its Wilayat Sinai associate in late October, killing 224 people. More attacks could come in Syria, the region or even on Russian soil.
THE MAIN beneficiary of the Russian intervention in Syria has been Iran. Arab observers maintain that in any future deal, Iran will keep at least most of western Syria under its control.
The legitimacy gained by Tehran following the signing of the nuclear deal has made it possible for Russia to rapidly advance their common strategic, political and economic interests. During his late November visit to Tehran, Putin eased an export ban on nuclear equipment and technology, promised to help Iran modernize its Arak heavy water reactor and agreed to build up to eight new nuclear power reactors. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for “closer interaction” with Russia to counter the US in the Middle East.
Israel has so far been able to mitigate the negative impact of the Russian presence in Syria. In his late September visit to Moscow, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu achieved an understanding for cooperation in de-conflicting the two air forces’ activities in the region. The Israeli approach seems to be “live and let live,” acknowledging Russia as a major player that “cannot be ignored.”
The Israel Air Force continues to enforce Israel’s red lines: Bombing transfers of strategic weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon (for example, long range ground-to-ground or anti-aircraft missiles), including in the sensitive area of the Qalamoun Mountains, and preventing Iranian/Hezbollah attempts to build a strategic platform near the Golan border.
The reported IAF mid-December air strike, which killed senior Hezbollah Druze operative Samir Kuntar, brought down a multistory building near Damascus, housing an operation room of the so called “National Syrian Opposition in the Golan” group, which is sponsored by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force.
Interestingly, however, the Kremlin did not voice any displeasure at the strike and, three days later, Putin and Netanyahu spoke on the phone and agreed to continue their dialogue and cooperation on the war against terror and other regional matters.
For their part, Russian jets did not refrain from targeting rebel forces in important locations in southern Syria, less than 20 kilometers from the Israeli border. Indeed, according to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, they even “occasionally” crossed into Israeli airspace.
The Russian intervention has already produced important strategic effects in the region.
As a result of its alienation from Moscow, Turkey is aligning more closely with NATO and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish-Russian crisis has also compelled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to strive to improve political and economic relations with Israel and possibly with Egypt too.
Saudi Arabia has deliberately provoked a dangerous crisis with Iran and regional escalation by executing a prominent Saudi Shi’ite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. The heightened tension has raised serious doubts concerning the UN diplomatic initiative, supported by Russia and the US, to end the war in Syria.
After the Russian intervention, the US decided to escalate its campaign against the Islamic State by stepping up its airstrikes in support of Kurdish and Arab fighters, and engaging in some level of ground commando operations.
It is still unclear whether Russia has a plan on how its adventure in Syria might end and whether its new military assets on the ground, like the modern fighters and S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, will remain there.
Given this backdrop, it seems the longer the Russian military campaign in the region lasts, the stronger Moscow’s alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and possibly Iraq will become. This alliance threatens strategic Israeli interests with regard to Iran and Hezbollah.
The deep Russian military involvement in Syria is slowly leading to a de facto restructuring of regional alliances, putting US and Western influence in the Middle East and beyond at risk and creating new scenarios for potential clashes with the Russians.
Dr. Ely Karmon is a Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Herzliya-based Interdisciplinary Center