Joanna M. Saidel

The Russians are here to stay

Rumor has it that an agreement has been reached between Trump, Putin and Netanyahu to cede the northern border area between Israel and Syria to Russia. It was reported in both the Israeli and Egyptian press that one of the results of the Helsinki summit, held on July 16, 2018, was a secret deal by which the United States and Israel acquiesced to Russian control of the Syrian, Israeli, Jordanian border, “including, most importantly, surveillance and observation elevations that oversee all parts of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean,” according to Debkafile.

The Syrian rebel’s southern stronghold in Quneitra fell today to the Syrian Army with the surrender of rebel forces and an agreement to respect the 1974 Separation of Forces Accord which “allowed Syrian aircraft, including assault helicopters and UAVs, to fly over the buffer zones of the Golan up to the Israel border”. Furthermore, “Damascus relayed a copy of the accord to Moscow with a warning that any Israeli attempt to shoot down a Syrian overflight would be a breach of the 1974 accord, and its endorsement on July 16 at Helsinki by President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Debkafile revealed on July 17 that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had partnered the Helsinki deal for the restoration of southern Syria to the Syrian army under Russian oversight” (Debkafile July 19,2018).

This accord prohibits Israeli interception of any Syrian air invasion within the buffer zones, such as the Syrian drone which Israel recently destroyed. “Israel is even precluded from discovering if the intruder belongs to Iran or Hizballah, leaving both these hostile enemies free to fly at will over Israel’s Golan border. Furthermore, Assad may have those flights painted with Syrian air force markings, just as he supplies Syrian military uniforms to disguise Hizballah and pro-Iranian Shiite militiamen” (Debkafile).

This intelligence assessment is corroborated by Al-Ahram, Egypt’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, an arm of the Egyptian government. In today’s article, Russia’s Syrian Army, it was reported that “Russia is expanding its military control of Syria in preparation for what may be a US-backed Russian takeover of the country as a whole.”

On July 6, 2018 a ceasefire was agreed upon between Russia and Syrian opposition forces which supposedly guaranteed security, restoration of public services, and a degree of semi-autonomous control in the affected areas. However, within days, the Syrian Army broke the agreement, entering and looting prohibited areas until the Russians repelled them. “The regime had thought that the conquests it had won with massive Russian air support would allow it to assume control of the most important stronghold of the opposition and the cradle of the Syrian Revolution, effectively ending the revolution. However, Russia’s aims in the south of the country seem to have been different, including the outcome of a US-Russian-Israeli deal regarding the need to eliminate the Iranian military presence in southern Syria up to a distance of at least 80 km from the Israeli border” (Al-Ahram).

Russia’s use of intense firepower in the area secured its position of dominance, consolidating the various forces and military zones under its command. “After securing control over the south, it concluded ceasefire agreements with the four largest groups and divided the south into four military zones under the command of leaders from opposition groups. These were granted extensive leeway, which they used to eliminate weaker rivals, ally with stronger ones, and restructure the areas as they pleased. The Russians also used this strategy following the break-up of the former Soviet Union in Chechnya (Al-Ahram).”  In return for giving up their heavy weapons, Syrian opposition leaders are allowed to control local affairs.

This posturing has brought a planned lull to activity in the south, enabling the Russian forces to concentrate on the Turkish backed rebel strongholds in the north. Once this objective has been accomplished, a final consolidation of forces is expected, consisting of “the forces in the south; the Syrian militias currently serving in the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield Operation in the north; and the Tiger Forces division under the command of Suheil Al-Hassan, an Al-Assad loyalist strongly supported by Russia (Al-Ahram)”.

Bassel Oudat, analyst for Al-Ahram, believes that Russia has “opted to restructure the opposition factions, relying temporarily on their current leaders. It has granted them leeway in terms of local influence in order to win their allegiance and facilitate the incorporation of the largest possible number of fighters in the Russian-controlled Fifth Corps.” Furthermore, the fact that Russia is now in control of most of the country indicates that Vladimir Putin has likely reached some sort of agreement with President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu in an attempt to stall Iranian ambitions in the region. Oudat writes that “ultimately, any solution to the Syrian crisis must conform with Israeli and US interests, satisfy Russia, and reduce the Iranian presence in Syria.”

Thus, it is likely that the future of the Iranian and Syrian army positions will be overshadowed by the Russian presence. History has shown that, once entrenched, Russia commits long term and takes firm control. At this point in time, the trade-off for regional stability appears to be Russian ascendency. This poses various problems while solving others. If proven true, the latest geopolitical developments resulting from the Helsinki meeting would underscore the trust which has seemingly developed between Netanyahu, Putin, and Trump.

About the Author
Joanna M. Saidel, Ph.D was the personal research assistant for the late Professor Benzion Netanyahu, father of the current prime minister, from 2000 to 2010. She authored the Doctoral dissertation, Revisionist Zionism in America: The Campaign to Win American Public Support, 1939-1948, and the Master’s thesis, Jewish Life in Latin America. She was awarded "First Place" in the International Art Competition, "My Jerusalem," by Mayor Teddy Kollek and Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
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