A rising power: Putin’s eyes on the Middle East

The recent summit in Istanbul, where Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, and French President Emmanuel Macron held hands, was more than a gathering to focus on the settlement of the on-going Syrian conflict and the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland. The Istanbul Declaration was a diplomatic statement of four unlikely figureheads coming together, with their major political differences, looking for a way to move forward in the region, without an American presence.

Since the days of the Obama Administration, America’s ability to retain its position as the main power broker in the Middle East has been challenged by a rising Soviet zealot whose main goal is to return Russia to its superpower status.

In 2013, when former U.S. President Barack Obama refused to take action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people, Putin stepped in, and has marked Syrian territory with an increasingly larger diplomatic and military footprint ever since.

In 2015, the Russian air force provided air cover to Assad, to make sure he would have the winning advantage over Syrian rebel insurgents. It worked. Putin became the potential “savior” of Assad’s regime, not because he likes Assad; not because he has any allegiance or sentiments towards him, personally, or to his Alawite community; but, because it is in Putin’s strategic interest to keep Assad in power as a Russian ally, and to use Assad for Russia’s future geopolitical goals in the region.

While current U.S. President Donald Trump still has the respect of the international community when it comes to America being the main power broker of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in other key matters in the region his administration has not been seen as a major influencer.

It is Putin who is relishing his ability to increase his power base in the Middle East, diplomatically and militarily. He has called on states that are friendly with Russia to help with infrastructure, hospitals, and schools in rehabilitating Syria, just as long as Assad is seen as the future ruler of the Syrian regime.

Micky Aharonson, former head of the Foreign Relations Directorate of Israel’s National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s office, is currently a research analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS). In a recent interview with this writer, she explained, “Re-building Syria means reaffirming, accepting, and strengthening Assad’s regime, which is exactly what Putin is aiming for.”

Aharonson said that, at the recent meeting in Turkey, where there was the conclusion of an Istanbul Declaration, there was no real political progress in building a new Syrian constitution. Yet, there was an agreement to re-build Syrian infrastructure.

“In this statement, they say the infrastructure should be re-built, the economy should be fixed, before the return of the refugees (to Syria). And, it is not connected in any way. There is no correlation with proper government. Assad is there to stay, we know that. It’s realistic. But, there is no demand for him to hold elections, and only then, help will come. They are saying, ‘let’s help fix the country right now.’ ”

So far, the Americans have refused to participate in this scheme, which gives greater relevance to the Sochi process than the Geneva talks (which the U.S. has long favored). But, it is Putin who made strides in being able to lure the two most powerful countries in the EU to this meeting in Istanbul, because Merkel and Macron have an interest in solving the refugee crisis, which affects their nations. Merkel is, especially, under a lot of pressure at home because of the refugees that have already poured into Germany putting an unwanted strain on German society. Erdogen is demanding that the Europeans help re-build Syria. Otherwise, according to Aharonson, he will open the gates and allow more refugees to flee to Europe.

Meanwhile, Putin continues to look for opportunities that will keep the U.S. out of the diplomatic process and Russia in. As Aharonson suggests, “The good relations are only good when it suits Russian interests. The Russian interests is to make Russia great again. This is also a version of his (Putin’s) election slogan.”

Putin is not so popular on his own home front, according to Aharonson. It has been hard for him to show significant economic improvement because of U.S. sanctions. (The sanctions were put in place after his land grab of Crimera in 2014). Therefore, Putin has been looking to provide his society with a sense of patriotism in the greatness of the Russian nation. He is trying to re-establish Russia as a superpower; as a critical partner in the international arena.

“Russia is looking to be a partner to negotiations in international crisis, because it also places it as a superpower that is involved in international peace processes and agreements.”

At the same time, Putin hopes to improve the Russian economy while suppressing the opposition in his society. There have been unprecendented protests in Russia, with citizens calling him a tyrant and dictator. His government is cracking down on the protestors, but there are continued demonstrations. He is looking for ways to stay in power and strengthen his regime.

“He made a lot of economic promises. He needs to find new markets for the defense industry. He needs to find new markets in general for the Russian companies that are under sanctions. So, the Middle East has great potential.”

While Putin is finding success on the diplomatic track, in regard to propping up Assad’s regime and demanding Assad have overall control of Syria in the future, the Russian leader is also advancing his military interests in Syria. Some of those interests have been a problem for Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered into a de-confliction military agreement with Putin in 2015. The aim has been to prevent a direct clash between Israel and Russia over Syria. Israel has continued to make it a top priority to prevent Iran from establishing a military base in Syria, while Putin’s main interest has been to make sure Assad stays in power by quenching opposition forces. This involves complex military operations by both countries.

Recently, the de-confliction agreement failed to prevent clashes. On September 17, 2018, Israel struck Iranian military targets in Syria after giving Moscow a short warning signal. The Israeli fighter jets finished their mission, left Syria and returned home. Meanwhile, Assad’s military forces started shooting in the air, and downed a Russian plane, killing 15 Russian servicemen on board. While the fault was definitely Syria’s, the Russians blamed Israel, in-directly, for not giving adequate warning time. As a consequence, Putin decided to sell the S-300 air defense system to Syria, expecting to make it harder for Israel to carry out its military operations in Syria.

Jonathon Spyer, a research fellow at the JISS, and an expert analyst on Syria, explained to this writer that the Russians have their most advanced air defense system available in Syria, which is the S-400, but that system is manned by Russian crews only. The S-400’s have not been deployed against Israeli aircraft that is carrying out strikes in Syria. The more advanced S-400 system is there to defend, specifically, Russian positions. It’s not there for the benefit of Russia’s allies in Syria, mainly the Assad regime and Iran.

“Russia has its most advanced weapons systems present in the Middle East. But, the point is that because Israel has maintained a diplomatic relationship with Russia, which enables Israel to operate over Syria (as long as it doesn’t directly challenge Russian installations which it has no reason to do), for as long as that situation remains, there is no reason why those weapon systems should become a threat to Israel.”

As far as the S-300 system, Israel is waiting to see who will be in the control room operating that system… the Syrians or the Russians. Israel does not want to directly confront the Russians.

Spyer doesn’t see it as a problem. “As you know, the Russians have supplied, already, two S-300 batteries to the Syrian military. Those installations are intended for the Syrians to use, presumably to defend their skies, also against Israeli attempts to destroy Iranian infrastructure.”

Will the Russians offer direct military assistance to the Syrians in order to stop Israeli efforts to attack Iranian or Syrian military targets?

Spyer responds:  “They could, but there is no evidence that they will, and there is no evidence that they have.”

The evidence, so far, is that Israel, on at least one occasion since the downing of the Russian plane on September 17th, has operated against Iranian targets over Syrian skies with no public reaction from the Russians.

Aharonson sees that the potential for operational mistakes between the Israelis and Russians exists, which could lead to a conflagration over Syria, but she is encouraged that the two leaders (Netanyahu and Putin) are part of a constructive dialogue.

“I think our government and military are doing a very good work in estimating Russian approaches. I think Russia, being so near Israeli borders in the open, is a threat, but also an opportunity because then you have somebody accountable.”

That accountability involves the relationship that currently exists between Russia and Israel through the de-confliction agreement. Aharonson gives a lot of credit to Israel’s military leadership in the continued clarification process. But, she is disappointed with public announcements made in Israel, bragging about how many times Israeli jets attacked positions in Syria. She doesn’t understand the rationale behind it.

This writer asked if the public announcements led to the deterioration in communications with the Russians in regard to the downing of the Russian plane.  “I don’t know if it led to it. For sure, it was not constructive from an Israeli point of view. When less is said, more is understood.”

As Israeli military leaders watch the northern border carefully, they continually look for opportunities to push back Iranian aggression which would disrupt the balance of power in the Middle East and threaten Israel’s ability to defend itself. Aharonson believes that Israeli intentions are to keep the dialogue open with the Russians, while looking for some leverage to get Russia’s support in keeping Iran at bay.

“The only Israeli real power is its ability to serve as a spoiler to Russian plans. If Israel could spoil Russian plans, then Israel has some leverage on Russia. Otherwise it’s ‘the mighty Russia, small Israel.’ We are a very militarily strong nation, but I don’t think anybody in Israel wants to reach confrontation with Russia.”

One way that Israel could spoil Russian plans would be to attack Assad’s assets that are critical to his rule of Syria. Since Russian interests are to have Assad there, Israel could dampen those efforts.

Meanwhile, Aharonson believes that the current “hot line” between Israel and Russia may not hold. The diplomatic relations between both countries will only stay on positive footing if Putin sees it as in his interest to continue the dialogue.

“Israel should aspire to having as many leverages as possible when it comes to any country that it wants to negotiate with or have an impact on. Nobody assumes there is an element of friendship that will prevent the Russians from doing something.”

Aharonson thinks that Israel needs something tangible as a way of deterring Russia’s interests in Syria that are in direct opposition to Israel’s interests. “If the Americans are willing to stay in Syria, it will, of course, be a positive move from the Israeli perspective.”

From an American perspective, U.S. military forces have shown a strong interest in wanting to stay in the 30% of Syria it currently controls, for reasons of its own, related to the desire to push back Iran from Syrian territory. This coincides with Israel’s interests. Yet, Russia wants Assad to conquer the entire Syrian land mass.

It is, therefore, possible that this could lead to future Russian-American clashes over Syria. This is especially true in regard to the on-going diplomatic track, as well as possible military confrontations between both countries over Syrian soil. The question is whether Russia wants such a scenario to exist.

Spyer says, “I suspect that the answer is no. I suspect that the Russians will say, ‘well, ok, you want to hold on to 30% of Syria for awhile, I guess we’ll just have to let you do it.’ It’s important, but it’s not sufficiently important to risk a superpower confrontation over. Though there is a real difference of opinion, I don’t think it’s realistic to suppose that it will likely lead to an exchange of fire between Russian and U.S. forces.”

And, what about the possibility of a confrontation between Israel and Russia over Syria?

According to Aharonson, “I don’t think that Israel can afford it. Israel will go a long way to make sure it doesn’t happen.”  She suggests that the de-confliction mechanism should be tightened.

In addition, she explains that there is one level that could hurt Israel’s relations with Russia. “The greatest sensitivity is if Israel confronts Russia directly; or Russian assets; or Russian soldiers. This is completely unacceptable.”

In the future, it is expected that Israel will try to reach a more permanent agreement with Russia that would allow Israel to preserve its national security by not allowing Iran to build a permanent military base in Syria. It is also expected that Putin will operate with the goal of “business as usual.” He will try to keep all sides happy. He will keep himself and Russia in a position of being in dialogue with anyone interested in his priorities.

There are those in the international community that believe as long as Putin in in control, his power will get stronger until he achieves his goal of Russia becoming a renewed superpower, with his eyes now on the Middle East.

About the Author
Carrie Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, military and social issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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