As the American Israel Public Affairs Committee concluded its annual DC conference this week I wonder why there was hardly a reference throughout its panels and plenaries to Russia’s expanding military and strategic alliance with Syria’s Assad and Iran and its implications on Israel’s long-term security.
Why was there no call out of Russia’s dangerous shipments of new defense missiles to both Syria and Iran? Why was there no push-back on Russia’s expanding nuclear and missile technology exchanges with Iran? Where were all the experts asserting that Assad’s impending “victory” courtesy in large part to Russia’s air intervention, sets the stage for a Phase II of the Syrian war far more dangerous to Israel: an Iranian front-line force deployment opposite Israel’s norther Golan Heights border?
It reminded me of the bear in the convention hall that no one cared to poke.
Sure, the fiery rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah was on full display. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu made Iran’s threat to Israel the centerpiece of his AIPAC remarks, but he made no reference to Russia’s Syria project and how it incubates Iran’s own Syria project in a permanently fragmented Syria.
Has Netanyahu, like President Trump, lost his tongue when it comes to Putin?
Israeli defense officials (naively, in my judgment) assert that Israel’s Syrian security concerns do not necessarily conflict with those of the Kremlin. Their conventional wisdom—buttressed by regular access to the Kremlin—maintains that all Putin wants is to keep Assad’s grip on a fragmented Syria and enable Russia’s air and naval bases in Latakia and around Damascus to operate unhindered. They point to the cordial relations between Israel and Russia and reassure themselves that Putin has enormous leverage over Assad and Iran in Syria. They explain there is no conflict with the Kremlin’s goals since all Israel seeks in Syria is to check Hezbollah and Iran’s growing Syrian deployments. Russia keeps Assad. Assad is the “better” Israeli devil it knows; Israel has a free hand to smash Hezbollah and check Iran. Simple? Pretty clear cut? Nice and neat? Live and let live, as the saying goes.
Who is fooling whom?
The problem with Syria is that nothing is simple and straightforward. It is a bloody, awful black hole of sectarian strife, recrimination, and big power rivalry. As Phase I of the seven-year Syrian civil war transitions with the defeat of anti-Assad Sunni rebels and the territorial ISIS caliphate into a Phase II, Syria’s “remains of the day” is being contested by non-Arab players, not Sunni Arab nations which were never able to unify a Sunni rebel force to defeat Assad. In Phase II the conflict is evolving into a more dangerous killing field pitting Turkey against the Kurds, Iran against Israel, Russia against the US, with Russia solidifying its strategic grip in the west and Iran doing so in the east and southwest.
It reminds me when Hitler and Stalin carved Poland up in 1939. In 2018 Syria Russia, Turkey, and Iran seizing their Syrian spoils with a puppet Assad regime serving as a fig leaf.
Turkey aside, Iran and Russia are laying groundwork that introduces a whole new set of challenges for Israel which include:
- A full-fledged military Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps deployment.
- The creation of a new Syrian version of a Shiite “Hezbollah” deployed in southwest Syria.
- Russian military bases providing operational and logistical support to Iranian troops.
- Deployment of the most modern Russian anti-missile defenses to cover all of Syria’s airspace.
- Construction of new underground missile factories and weapons depots by Iranian and Hezbollah forces.
- Iran’s growing military and political interference in Lebanon.
The Russians are certainly not ignorant of what Iran is up to in Syria. Tehran is stealing a page out of its very successful Lebanon playbook according to Norm Roule, an adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran and former Chief of Iranian Operations at the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Roule believes Iran has all the conditions in place in Syria to achieve a sustainable strategic front-line against Israel: a beleaguered Shiite minority, a logistical pipeline to Tehran, and a chaotic battlefield.
Then there is Hezbollah.
Intercepted Hezbollah social media communications with Shiite militia commanders boast about their intention to “quickly” transform Israel’s Golan Heights into the equivalent of Israeli-occupied Southern Lebanon in which Hezbollah forced Israel to unilaterally withdraw under relentless terrorist attacks against the Israeli military. Hezbollah’s Al Manar media has even branded this future joint Iran/Hezbollah/Shiite militia campaign “The War of Northern Resistance” by a new “Axis of Resistance” comprising an expanding array of terrorist proxies including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, a new Syrian Hezbollah, the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division, and the Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade, all led by Iran’s Al Quds Force.
This so-called War of Northern Resistance may be a figment of Iran’s & Hezbollah’s imaginations. Of course, Israel will have nothing of it, or so it asserts. But it fits squarely into Iran’s broader designs against Israel.
Two weeks ago, Iran dispatched an armed drone into Israeli territory from a base in Syria which, after sustained Israeli retaliation against the incursion, resulted in an unprecedented loss of an Israeli F-16. It was a sophisticated military drone whose design copy-catted an American drone captured by Iran several years ago.
Syria’s shootdown of that Israeli American-built fighter was an ominous turn of events. Israel’s air supremacy in Lebanese and Syrian airspace is THE essential element of its strategic defense against Hezbollah, let alone Iran.
And yet, over Israel’s strenuous objections Putin had gone ahead and deployed batteries of S-400 “Triumph” missile defense system to Syria—the most sophisticated air defense system in the Russian arsenal. The S-400 has a range of 250 miles, capable of intercepting any aircraft sitting on any of Ben-Gurion Airport’s runways—Israel’s international airport. Israeli ground-to-air missile defenses theoretically can interdict an S-400 flying into Israeli airspace, but that has not been proven in a real test.
Too many Israeli defense experts have short memories. Russia has never permitted its ties to Israel to stand in the way of its commitment to the Assads and their Shiite benefactors.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War the Soviet Union’s 2K12 “Kub” missile defense system destroyed dozens of Israeli planes. These Kubs prevented Israel’s air force from launching a counter-offensive into Syria,
The S-400 is the very updated version of the Kub now protecting Syrian airspace…and by extension, Iran and Hezbollah forces in Syria.
Israel downplays concern over the S-400, unwisely assuring itself that the Russians, not the Syrians or their Iranian allies, have their fingers on the S-400 triggers. Israeli officials are assuaged that there is a hotline between the Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff and his Russian counterpart to avoid any dogfights over Syria.
How many Israeli defense officials are willing to bet their mortgages that the Russians will keep it that way?
Maybe they will have second thoughts when Putin goes ahead with his sale of S-300s and S-400s to Iran, which had been placed on hold during the superheated negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal.
Or maybe they will have third thoughts now that Iran has tested and deployed a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile—the SA-20C—which according to the Pentagon, provides Iran with a highly mobile, long-range, strategic surface-to-air missile.
If Putin cared one iota for Israel’s security and ability to defend itself against an Iranian regime which hourly calls for Israel’s demise why is Moscow turning a blind eye to Israel’s protests? No amount of demarching Putin seems to have had any impact on his decisions in Syria. Putin even “ordered” Israel to cease is impending massive retaliation against Syrian and Iranian installations after the drone strike. Israel backed down immediately.
It is essential that Israel begin realizing that Russia’s Phase II Syria Project will mean growing coordination with Iran and Hezbollah, considering that Russia has little influence over Iran and has little sway over events on the ground in Syria. Its light military footprint (air power vs. major ground troop deployment) certainly had a decisive impact on the battlefield in favor of Assad, but that light footprint means Russia has no leverage over Iran’s heavy ground-force military foot-print in its new “zones of influence” and Putin is not losing sleep over Iran’s machinations in Syria.
Putin has no desire to carry Israel’s water and “contain” Iran in Syria, much less guarantee Iran’s departure once Moscow is satisfied that Assad is safely back in control of the truncated Syrian state. Neither will Russia provide any freedom of the skies for Israel to attack Syrian territory against Hezbollah or Iranian-backed militias if it endangers the Assad regime. That includes attacks on Syrian military installations which may be trans-shipment hubs for military transfers to Hezbollah. Moreover, Assad has no desire to enable Putin to be the principle power broker of his fate or the fate of his Iranian support system. The Syrian leader knows full well that the ruthless Putin will think nothing of dispatching Assad if it suited his designs.
What this all means is that Netanyahu or his Russian-born Defense Minister Lieberman can make all the appeals they want to Putin. They can flatter him and return home from Moscow vainly reassuring Israelis of the success of his working relationship with Putin. In turn, Putin will listen and talk the talk of understanding Israel’s security concerns. He will even go so far as to warn Iran publicly not to threaten Israel as if that should be enough.
Israel is going to have to take its head out of the sand. Hezbollah’s website claims that it has 70,000 Iranian missiles across Syria ready to launch into Israel; and will have 500,000 in a year. Add that bone-chilling capacity to Hezbollah’s missile cache in Lebanon which exceeds 150,000.
Relying on Russia to thwart that danger is a fool’s errand.
Russia has no strategic reason to oppose Iran’s Syria project. Satellite reconnaissance indicates Iran is building bases within the protective shield of Russian air fields – including an Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps “special operations” base eight miles northwest of Damascus. Putin views Hezbollah and Shiite militias as a bulwark against any resurrection of ISIS or other Sunni Arab extremist organizations. Russian planes are patrolling the skies over Syria not merely to protect Assad, but to prevent Israeli incursions.
Does this mean that a war between Israel and Iran is imminent as Iran pursues its Syria strategy? Unlikely. Putin finds the evolving status quo satisfactory to Russia, and that does not include an inconvenient military confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria that could weaken Assad just as he is prevailing. Moreover, Israel has the military capacity to inflict severe damage to Iran’s and Hezbollah’s existing Syrian bases—at least for the time being. So, the game of chicken continues.
In the meantime, Iran will pour resources into building a new Syrian Hezbollah and recruit a new generation of Syrian origin Shiite militias to serve as its proxies against Israel.
As for Putin…he will continue to turn a blind eye and soon realize that Assad and Iran consider him the “junior partner” in Syria’s future.
About the author: Ambassador Marc Ginsberg is Senior Global Adviser at The Counter Extremism Project and a Former White House Mid East Adviser & Envoy.