Rumors a week ago in the Israeli press have now become the subject of major news stories and editorials in the US. The Obama doctrine of appeasement and neglect in the Middle East has allowed for a direct Russian involvement into the Syrian civil war. A Russian expeditionary force is already on the ground in western Syria, expanding a current airfield in anticipation of the arrival of Russian jet fighters and attack helicopters. The targeted aim of this Russian airpower is most certainly ISIS, and perhaps other Sunni jihadist forces which make up the bulk of the anti-Assad Syrian opposition. But the effect of such an operation will not only weaken the Sunni opposition, it will most likely ensure that direct Iranian involvement on Israel’s northern borders could continue far into the future. The question becomes: What is US policy with respect to such direct Russian involvement in aid of Israel’s enemies?
It is one thing to send Assad war materiel. It is quite another to provide him with air support and cover. The prospect of direct Russian help in conjunction with the lifting of sanctions, and the release of frozen Iranian funds due to an ill-conceived nuclear agreement, is an unprecedented foray into Middle Eastern affairs by Moscow. No other US administration since Truman would have allowed such an overt Russian involvement. Even Jimmy Carter reacted negatively to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s. But with the Obama administration, nothing is certain. Israel could be on its own with respect to Iranian and Russian involvement in Syria and Lebanon.
The balance of power in the Middle East is precarious enough without a Russian tilt toward Tehran. But is this Putin’s aim? The Russian leader must know that Israel will not allow its vital national security to be jeopardized by a permanent Iranian positioning of missiles and terrorists in proximity of its borders. Yet the advent of Sunni jihadist forces remains in no one’s interest either. This is also true for all communities in Syria and Lebanon, for Russia, Europe and the US, and certainly for Israel. However, a lasting balance of power must be achieved throughout the Levant. A permanent Iranian presence, using Assad and Hezbollah in conjunction with direct Russian involvement, is hardly an answer. President Putin must understand that such an arrangement can only lead to a dangerous escalation of the region’s current war.
So back to our essential question: What is US policy with respect to direct Russian involvement in aid of Israel’s enemies? Obama has promised a more active US intercession to restrict the flow of Iranian missiles into Syria and Lebanon. But in the last seven years he has done almost nothing to prevent such Iranian encroachment into Israel’s near-abroad. That was because of the Iran nuclear deal and the US president’s hesitancy to alienate the anti-Israeli leadership in Tehran. But apparently the president now has his nuclear deal with Iran all wrapped up in neat Democratic Party packaging. But what about the Russians and the balance of power in the Middle East? This element of American policy has been sorely neglected by the Obama administration. The US president has said that “Assad must go”, but now it is the Russians who want to assure the Syrian dictator of his survival. Obama seems to be in a policy quandary. His neglect has caused a vacuum, and the vacuum is now being filled by President Putin.
But aren’t the Russians risking quite a lot by NOT attempting to create a permanent balance of power in the Middle East? Things could get out of hand quickly. First, but not necessarily foremost, there is the US Congress and its Republican Party majority. The US presidential election season is coming into full swing, and the issue of Iran and the Russians makes for great partisan fodder. Putin’s Russia has a bad reputation in the US, and when mixed-up with Iran and Hezbollah, the combination is toxic to the extreme. Second, for Putin there is always the prospect that Russian meddling in the Middle East could create NATO blowback on the Ukraine. Perhaps it will become time for US weapon systems to be directed toward Kiev. On both these first two points, a Republican Congress could act most forcefully. But foremost on Putin’s mind should be a direct Israeli response to Hezbollah and the Quds Force in Lebanon and Syria. What would he do if such an event were to occur?
Israel is on a knife’s edge with regard to Iran. So are Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab states. If Putin were really smart, he’d attempt to mitigate Sunni Arab and Israeli concerns by distancing himself from Iran and Hezbollah. Putin could insist that Russian actions are necessary to defeat ISIS, while in no way being an aggressive tilt toward Tehran. On the contrary, Russian help could be conditioned on the Syrian government’s restriction of Iranian assistance and access to Syrian airfields. This would go a long way to solidifying recent Russian diplomatic gains throughout the region. In other words, Russian could fill the vacuum left by Obama’s neglect, but only if its actions were responsible and balanced.
Whichever way Mr. Putin decides to go, there is definitely going to be some kind of response to the Kremlin’s actions. Israel and the US should insist that Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war must be accompanied by a firm commitment to prevent Iranian hegemony within the region. This must mean that proper Russian involvement must be authorized by the UN Security Council and Russian forces must be wearing blue helmets. Also, such a force must supplant all Iranian involvement in Syria and Lebanon. A firm Russian statement on the protection of all communities within Lebanon and Syria must be enhanced by a firm UN commitment to dismantle Hezbollah’s missile system aimed at Israeli population centers and vital infrastructure. Eventually, Hezbollah must be completely disarmed. The political future of Syria can only be achieved by the direct and coordinated intervention of all the world’s powers (and other responsible countries) within the framework of the cooperative efforts of the United Nations. Anything less could lead to world war.
Syria and the whole of the Levant have waited far too long for the international community to take some responsible action. Europe is now paying the price for such neglect. However, a Russia-Assad-Iran-Hezbollah axis would be a dramatic step in precisely the wrong direction. With the global economic and geopolitical situation becoming more and more fragile each and every day, the world needs some good news from the great powers for a change. And that good news needs to come soon!