July began with a major shake-up in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus. In an attempt to consolidate power after regaining territorial control over most of the country, Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, seems to be focusing his attention internally within his regime, while still battling to retake the last swathe of opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. Asad removed formerly powerful and influential figures in Syria’s intelligence agencies and promoted individuals with close ties with Russia. Iranian influence is a major casualty of the shake-up, with a close Iranian ally, Major-General Jamil al-Hassan, resigning days after he walked out of a secret meeting between Syrian, Israeli and Russian military officials in Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. With the ousting of Iranian allies, officials with ties to Russia have been promoted into key positions, signalling Asad’s consolidation of military and intelligence structures, and distancing his regime from Iran. The sidelining of Iranians and their allies appears to have Israeli fingerprints, after a secret meeting between Russia, Israeli officials and Syrian military generals in southern Syria on 30 June. The shake-up also signals Russia’s efforts to reform the Syrian military and intelligence services to ensure its interests override Iran’s.
Biggest reshuffle in seven years
The 7 July reshuffle of Syria’s intelligence apparatus is the most significant shift in personnel since July 2012, when senior security service personnel were moved after a bombing of the national security headquarters in Damascus left four generals dead. Since then, many of the people that filled these powerful positions in the intelligence apparatus have been implicated in the Asad regime’s atrocities across the country, with some personally accused of committing crimes against humanity. Last month’s reshuffling began Hassan, who headed the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, handed in his resignation. Despite his ill health and inability to carry out his duties effectively, his resignation was unexpected as his contract had recently been renewed for another year. Adding to the mystery is the fact that his deteriorating health was not cited as the major reason behind his resignation, and there have been reports of his having been treated in a hospital in Syria run by the Lebanese Hizbullah.
Hassan was replaced by his deputy, Major-General Ghassan Ismail, a close Russian ally. Ismail has been a key partner of the Russians for front-line operations at the Russian Hmeimim airbase near the city of Latakia. All four Syrian intelligence agencies – Department of Military Intelligence, Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – experienced leadership changes. Another reshuffling of leadership positions occurred in the General Intelligence Directorate, now headed by Major-General Hussam Louqa. Louqa, who hails from Aleppo, was a key Russian intelligence intermediary in Homs, and worked closely with Syrian military commander Brigadier-General Suhail Hassan, who also has close relations with Moscow. Another intelligence veteran and senior Asad advisor, Ali Mamlouk, has been promoted to the position of Vice President for Security Affairs. The Syrian president appears to be grooming Mamlouk for the position of deputy president, returning to his father’s tradition of reserving the deputy president post for a Sunni candidate. Mamlouk’s former position has been filled by Mohammed Deeb Zeitoun, known for his role in strengthening Russia’s links with the State Security Directorate over the past two years.
A number of other figures appointed into new positions on 8 July are also believed to share close links with Russia, including General Nasser Deeb, recently appointed to the strategic post of head of the Criminal Security Directorate. His appointment is viewed as indicative of Asad’s strategy of deploying Russians and their allies within the security apparatus to deal with the growing insurgency in the south, notably in Dara'a, which has seen a number of political assassinations of key opposition figures and those linked to the regime over the past year, since the government retook control of the area. As director of criminal security, Deeb is also tasked with containing the spread of shabbiha gangs, led by members of Asad’s extended family who have carved out territories of personal control in Latakia. The Russians see this post as critical to root out corruption and patronage links between the military and outsiders, as they attempt to herald a political solution to the war-torn country.
Another significant 8 July appointment, without media fanfare, suggested that the shake-up is not limited to the military and intelligence apparatuses. Ali Turkmani, son of a commander killed in the July 2012 bombing of national security headquarters, was promoted to the position of presidential security advisor, while another key political figure, Bahjat Suleiman, a former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Jordan, was reappointed to a key position in the political intelligence bureau. These appointments bear the hallmarks of growing Russian influence in Syria, seemingly at the expense of the Iranians.
Russia and Iran vying for influence in Syria’s military
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, both Russia and Iran’s influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses have strengthened, and have been critical to the regime’s victories over various rebel groups across the country. Russia’s continuing reform process inside the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses began with its 2015 military intervention, an attempt to stamp its influence in the country, as shown by the creation of the Fourth Corps under joint Russian-Syrian command. The fractured and beleaguered Syrian military has been weakened over time, while coming under the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Iran wields considerable influence in the military and intelligence apparatus in both lower and higher level structures. Furthermore, the presence of an array of Iran-linked militia, supporting the regime, has created a familiarity between generals and commanders through training and combat operations.
On the other hand, Russia entered the fray when the Syrian military was experiencing significant desertions and fractures in the intensifying war against rebel formations, and at a time when the regime had lost a significant amount of territory to the variety of rebel groups, including the Islamic State group. After the creation of the Fourth Corps in 2015 and the Fifth Corps in 2016, Russia set its sights on creating a single unit of command to integrate paramilitaries loyal to the regime into the Republican Guard. To effect this integration, Moscow has tried to exert greater control over the inner workings of the military and intelligence agencies through training and shifting personnel in key leadership positions. The latest reshuffle is an outcome of this process that intensified in late-2018, after the Syrian regime regained control of major territories lost to rebels since 2011.
Russia’s disagreements with the Iranians is not new. Although Iran continues to exercise considerable influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses, it has cause for concern as Russia seeks to placate Israeli demands to oust Iranian-linked militia from Syria, especially from the south of the country. In July 2018, as the Syrian regime began an offensive to oust rebels from Dara'a in southern Syria, Russia called for ‘foreign’ forces to withdraw from the southern areas, echoing Israel’s demand for Iranian fighters to retreat from areas close to the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. In the Astana negotiations process, led by Russia, Iran reportedly condemned Russia for allowing Turkey to launch operations against Kurdish fighters in Afrin in northern Syria in early 2018. In Idlib, the Russians have been dissatisfied with what they see as Iran’s lack of enthusiasm to assist in the regime-led offensive against rebels.
The security reshuffle, just over a week after a tripartite meeting in Jerusalem between Russia, the USA and Israel, also indicates the increasing role of Israel in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. On 25 June, Israel hosted US and Russian officials for a security conference that focused heavily on the question of countering Iranian influence. In the meeting, Israel urged Russia to assist with ensuring Israel’s security, which involves diminishing Iranian influence in Syria.
Russia was also told by Israel and John Bolton, the national security advisor to US president Donald Trump, that Iran needed to be rooted out of Lebanon and Iraq as well. Seemingly in agreement, Russia soon facilitated a 30 June meeting between Israeli and Syrian military and intelligence officials in Quneitra. The meeting was attended by General Jamil Hassan, accompanied by members of Syria’s Fifth Corps, which is funded, trained and commanded by Russia. Other attendees included leaders of certain rebel groups based in southern Syria, including the Ababil Houran Army, Alaa Zakaria al-Halqi and the Shuhada Inkhal Brigade. The meeting was also attended by the commander of the former Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Ahmed Hamaidi al-Moussa, who had been released from a regime prison days earlier, as a result of Russian pressure.
The Quneitra meeting was arranged as part of Russia’s cooperation with Israel for military operations in southern Syria. Israel demanded at the meeting that Hassan integrate the Fifth Corps into regime military forces, remove Iranian militias from the south of Syria (Dara'a and Quneitra) and maintain a distance of least fifty-five kilometres from the Golan Heights. In exchange, Israel and Russia offered to fund operations to combat rebel militia in Syria’s southern provinces.
Hassan reportedly refused to marginalise the Iranians, hailing them as supporters of the Syrian people. Although presented by Israel, the demand to integrate the Fifth Corps into the Syrian military has been an objective of Russia’s ongoing reform process within Syria’s military and intelligence apparatuses. The sacking of Hassan and other senior leaders in the 8 July reshuffle is the most recent part of the Russian reform process, which began after the formation of the Fourth Corps ‘storming brigade’ in October 2015.
Despite (or, perhaps because of) increasingly close coordination between Israel and Russia, the Israeli military has continued its bombardment of areas in southern Syria, targeting particularly Iranian positions near the Golan Heights. The Israeli bombardment also included Iraq, where several Iranian targets were hit by airstrikes. The frequency of Israeli strikes in Syria has increased, and can be expected to continue in Iraq, as suggested by the Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister, who boasted on 21 July that Israel was the only country that was killing Iranians.
Preparing for a new political era
On 13 July, Asad approved the appointments to the UN-guided constitutional committee, composed of regime officials and opposition figures selected by the regime, opposition groups and the UN. The formation of the committee has dragged on for seventeen months, as the UN struggled to establish consensus on the membership of the committee as demanded by the various actors. Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy to Syria, had failed to reach an agreement with the Syrian government on the opposition figures proposed by the UN until a breakthrough on 13 July, after the 8 July reshuffle. Asad and Pedersen announced the agreement on the formation of the committee, and said that talks were expected to continue between the regime and the opposition.
However, there are still disagreements over the constitutional review process. The regime wants to amend the constitution; the opposition has called for a complete redrafting. The latter’s view is supported by the USA, which has believes that a new constitution could see an end to the bitter conflict. It remains unclear whether this position is shared by Russia, which has largely left this process to the UN. For now, the Russians are focused on security sector reform in Syria, while continuing to pursue the Astana political process with Turkey and Iran. With the regime regaining control over most of Syria’s territory, it is expected that the Syrian participation in the Astana process will grow; Asad sent his foreign minister and several high-level security officials to the Astana meeting on 1-2 August.
The ceasefire agreed between the Syrian regime and rebel groups in Idlib on 1 August demonstrates preparation for a new era as combat dwindles. To accelerate this process, Russia intervened and deployed ground troops to assist the regime in Idlib, and this ceasefire is seen as a direct Russian intervention. Russia is therefore on a path of crafting an outcome to the Syrian conflict that is directed and led from Moscow, with regional players – such as Iran and Turkey – playing a mere supporting role.
The security reshuffle in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses demonstrates Asad’s intention to consolidate power as he looks towards rebuilding the country while battling the final rebel bastion in Idlib. With his internal consolidation under way, the regime is simultaneously engaging with the UN and beginning talks with the opposition to review the constitution. To do this, the Syrian president has recognised Russia as his most important partner by strategically placing Russian-allied figures in senior positions and allowing Russian training of special forces in the Syrian military. Iran, which continues to enjoy considerable influence in the military and intelligence agencies, is, in the process of the cosying-up with Moscow, seemingly being sidelined. While Tehran and Moscow tussle for influence in Syria, other actors, such as Israel and the USA, continue to play significant roles. Israel’s co-ordination with Russia has been evident in its repeated airstrikes in Syria, with Russia either turning a blind eye or assisting. Israel’s demands to integrate the Fifth Corps, created by Moscow, into the Syrian army to curb Iranian influence in the intelligence apparatuses signals greater Israeli-Russia co-ordination in Syria. Many Russian-trained units, such as the Fourth and Fifth Corps, are being integrated into the Syrian army, while figures allied to Iran, such as Jamil Hassan, are being pushed out. In short, the reshuffle signals that Asad has given Moscow the green light to rebuild Syria’s fractured security apparatuses to secure his future power, even if it comes at the expense of its long-time ally Iran.
South African aid organisations have been lauded for their humanitarian efforts in the Syrian conflict. The conflict began with the Arab spring in 2011 and now has degraded into a civil war whereby there are many armed factions fighting for control. To give us more insight and to explain South Africa's humanitarian role in Syria is Afro Middle East Centre Executive Director Naeem Jeenah.
The deal between Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, regarding Syria’s Idlib province, announced on 17 September, sought to avert a campaign by the Syrian army similar to that in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a. It followed Erdogan’s appeal to Iran and Russia – his partners in the Astana process – as well as to the USA and Europe to save the three million civilians trapped in the northwestern Syrian province from a fate similar to the one that befell the 400 000 citizens of Eastern Ghouta in March 2018, when Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad launched a brutal bombardment of the area. The September agreement included the establishment of a demilitarised zone twenty kilometres into Idlib from the Turkish border. Turkey insisted that this was necessary to avoid a spillover of clashes on its border, to secure its border by preventing activities of the militant Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and to prevent an influx of refugees across the border into Turkey.
In terms of the agreement, Turkey was allowed a month – until 15 October – to persuade ‘radical’ rebel groups to leave the demilitarised zone, and ‘moderate’ groups to hand over their heavy weapons. The ‘radical’ groups referred to were – mainly – al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and an HTS breakaway (comprising mainly foreign nationals), Huras al-Din, while the ‘moderate’ groups were mostly Turkish-supported organisations. Most of the latter had no choice but to comply; they surrendered their weapons and coalesced into the National Liberation Front (NLF), which began playing the role of a police force centred around Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib. HTS and Huras al-Din did not officially announce their acceptance of the deal, with Huras al-Din emphasising its determination to maintain control over all its weapons and continuing its battle against the Syrian government. However, a week before the 15 October deadline, HTS surrendered its heavy weapons and commenced policing operations with the NLF. Early November, just weeks after the 15 October deadline, Huras al-Din joined HTS and participated in NLF patrols.
The Syrian regime, however, does not feel itself fully bound by the Russia-Turkey deal, and has carried out numerous attacks against various rebel groups in and outside the delineated zone, in violation of the agreement. It insists that all heavy weapons have not been surrendered, and that the deal was only temporary, arguing that the deal’s purpose was to avert bloodshed while preparing the ground for the regime to take over control. Russia agrees on the temporary nature of the agreement; Turkey does not. The arrangement for the province resembles the strategy employed in Afrin,Manbij and the area north of theEuphrates River, where Turkey maintains troops and proxies, ostensibly to prevent activities of the YPG (which it regards as a terrorist group), and to protect its borders from jihadists and refugees fleeing Syrian bombardment. In general, Idlib is regarded as a significant threat by the three states that are part of the Astana process – Turkey, Russia and Iran, even if they do not agree on a strategy to counter it. Despite these opposing interests and strategies, however, the Idlib deal represents a victory of sorts – even if only temporary – for Turkey on the diplomatic and military fronts.
Idlib – the last rebel outpost
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The mountainous Idlib province is in the northwest of Syria, to the west of which are the cities of Tartous, which is home to a Russian naval base, and Latakia, with its large Alawi population that forms the bedrock of support for Asad’s ruling Ba'athist Party. To Idlib’s east is Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest commercial hub before successive battles between rebels groups (including the Islamic State group) and the regime in 2016. To the south is the city of Hama, which experienced large population transfers carried out by the regime in 2016 and 2017. The north of the province forms the border with Turkey, making it a strategic transit route for refugees fleeing the civil war and militants of various stripes entering Syria. The government lost the province to HTS in 2015 after a series of fierce battles, making Idlib one of the regime’s biggest losses. The loss meant that Damascus also lost control of the strategic M4 and M5 highways. The former links Aleppo and Latakia to oil rich Deir Ez Zor and Raqqa, while the latter is a major trade route to Turkey and Europe.
With its 18 000 fighters, HTS controls around sixty per cent of the province, while the rest of the territory is shared between groups that were evacuated under Russian-brokered deals from various parts of the country. They include the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham. HTS has often clashed with these other groups, but it also collaborated with Turkey since 2017, and it coordinated with Turkey in March in the establishment of observation posts in Idlib as part of thede-escalation zones declared by the Astana process that included Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Despite some coordination with Turkey, HTS continues publicly to denounce Turkey; its leader,Muhammed al-Joulani, emphasised that HTS will not take orders from Turkey regarding the fight against the Asad regime. In reality, however, HTS rejects the Turkey-Russia deal publicly but complies with it silently. The group has also, under Turkey’s direction, been trying to contain its splinter group that comprises mainly foreign fighters, Huras al-Din. Huras al-Din feels marginalised by HTS’s coordination with Turkey, and fears for the safety and future of its foreign fighters if HTS officially dissolves and joins the NLF. This is a distinct possibility, as recent events signal that HTS is considering the possibility of defeat, and might ultimately dissolve the fighting force as part of a deal with Turkey. The group is aware that it will not be able to withstand sustained bombardment by the regime, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower. Thus, the group has been silently complying with the Sochi deal, even though it has not formally joined the NLF, which is composed of fourteen rebel groups, including a large contingent of FSA fighters.
Astana de-escalation zones
The Astana deal was reached in May 2017 in Kazakhstan’s capital by the three key foreign players in the Syrian conflict: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It sought to implement four de-escalation zones in Syria to pave the way for a political process that would end the Syrian civil war, with the three players acting guarantors of the zones.
Under the agreement, Idlib was earmarked for the first implementation of a de-escalation zone. Turkey was to be the guarantor and monitor of Idlib. Twelve observation posts were initially set up by Turkish troops, but Turkey then set its sights on the neighbouring Afrin province, where it targeted the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main component is the YPG. After lengthy negotiations between the three Astana partners, Turkey moved into Afrin with a nod from Russia for Turkish planes to use Syrian airspace.
Control over Idlib is critical for the Asad regime and its allies (Iran and Russia) to declare victory in the conflict which has been raging since 2011. It would give the regime decisive control over all Syrian territory. Their strategy was to deal with Idlib after defeating the opposition in the south – in Dara'a and Quneitra, where the government took back control of territory lost to rebels, and subsequently transferred rebel groups and many civilians to other rebel-controlled areas. Iran was denied a share of the victory in the south because of a Russian agreement with Israel that Iranian forces would leave the south; a number of militias aligned to it, however, did fight with Syrian forces. Iran thus had been anticipating the Idlib campaign when it could fight alongside Syrian troops against the many opposition groups sent there from other parts of the country as a consequence of ceasefire deals. While Iran was looking forward to a battle in Idlib that would finally end all military opposition, Turkey was attempting to prevent a bloodbath and to protect groups allied to it. These opposing interests had already been demonstrated when Iran decried Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in January 2018. Iran also opposed Turkey’s plea to avert a military campaign in Idlib when the three partners met in Tehran on 7 September 2018.
After a war of words with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Erdogan bypassed Iran, and flew to the Russian island of Sochi to meet Putin, to craft a deal that would protect the northwestern province from a fate similar to that of Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo, where continued rebel fighting resulted in largescale massacres. On 17 September, Erdogan and Putin announced the Idlib deal, undermining Iranian and Syrian ambitions of a fullscale attack on the province. Since the 15 October deadline for demilitarisation of the 20km zone in Idlib, Iranian militias and the Syrian army have continued to shell rebel positions inside the zone, vowing to retake the province from rebel control, in violation of the Turkish-Russian deal.
The Sochi deal mirrors a strategy that Turkey has employed since the start of the war: deploying Turkish troops inside Syrian territory to occupy and clear out areas along its borders of rebels not aligned to it or aligned to the SDF. Starting with the 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield north of the Euphrates River, Turkey deployed forces along its border within Syria to attack and eliminate IS and the YPG. Although Turkey announced an end to the operation in March 2017, full disengagement did not occur, and it maintains a military presence in those areas. Following the Astana agreement in May 2017, Turkey and Iran continued to butt heads over Turkey’s request to be allowed to enter the Afrin province that was under YPG control. In January 2018, Russia allowed Turkey to use air power and, subsequently, to launch Operation Olive Branch against the YPG. Although Turkey claimed the operation was temporary, its troops and proxies continue to control the province. Turkey hopes for a similar outcome in Idlib, especially after seeing a similar result in Manbij, where it negotiated a roadmap with the USA to clear out the YPG by holding joint patrols with the United States.
The Syrian regime regards the agreement as a short-term plan, and is intent on retaking all Syrian territory. Although Russia has stalled Syrian forces for a while, it is unclear for how long it will continue doing so. With this in mind, Turkey is looking for additional support and recently called on France and Germany to assist. Convening a special summit on Idlib in Istanbul, Erdogan hosted Germany, France, and Russia on 27 October 2018 to effectively obtain commitment to the Sochi deal. Noticeable absentees at the meeting were the USA and Iran. For Erdogan, the summit was an attempt to garner European support over and above Russian support.
The Sochi agreement might have been announced as temporary, and viewed as such by Iran and the Syrian government. However, Turkey has no intention of leaving Idlib soon. It seeks to effect in Idlib the same strategy that it employed west of the Euphrates river, in Afrin and Manbij, where it deployed troops and militia groups acting as its proxies. Turkey’s policy of muscular engagement demonstrates its commitment to maintain its interests and security by permanently controlling areas along its border directly or through proxies. As violations of the deal continue from the Asad regime and its Iranian backers, Turkey seems to have managed to get (at least temporarily) what it wants in northern Syria, thanks to Russia. For Turkey, long-term control is a more durable solution against its enemies in Syria, even if it means disregarding Syrian sovereignty.
By Yury Barmin
Israel has been an unofficial ally of Moscow since 1991, when diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel were restored, having been severed following the Six-Day War in 1967. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Russia was rapidly losing its political and economic clout in the rest of the Middle East region, while its relations with Israel improved.
The relations between the two countries have always taken the form of an informal alliance, as Israel has traditionally been regarded as a key partner in the region of the United States, and Washington has historically guaranteed Israel’s security. In the words of its minister of defence, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel and Russia have developed ‘special relations’ over the past few decades, despite the political pressure being exerted on Israel by the country’s allies. The deep historical ties between the countries serve as the basis for stabilising their relations and give them a less politicised character.
The traditional focus on solving the Palestinian problem, which is rapidly losing relevance in the Arab world amidst talk of the Iranian threat, has started to wane in Russia-Israel relations too, as a direct consequence of Moscow’s decision to pursue a more active policy in the Middle East. While Russia may have seen an opportunity to play a significant role in a Palestinian-Israeli resolution following the decision of the US president, Donald Trump, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Israeli leadership now sees the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear deal as the main issues on the bilateral agenda. It is these two events that have strengthened Iran’s position, thus becoming a catalyst for threats to Israel’s national security.
Against the backdrop of the escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran, Russia’s relations with Israel are being put to test over Syria. This was demonstrated by the 17 September incident in which Syria accidentally downed a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft during an attack by Israeli F-16 jets on targets in Syria. While certain analysts have started to assert that Russia has taken on the role of the USA as a guarantor of Israel’s security and survival in the Middle East, it is hardly likely that the country’s leadership sees it this way.This notwithstanding, Israel has made it clearthat it views Moscow, and not Washington, as the party that is capable of preventing the conflict with Tehran from turning into a full-scale war.
When the war in Syria broke out, active discussion within the Israeli establishment took place as to what position the country should take with regard to the conflict. The 2005 reference of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to Bashar al-Asad as ‘the devil we know’ when he warned George Bush against attempting to overthrow Asad, was no longer relevant in 2011. In Israel’s estimation, the Arab uprisings, which benefited Tehran in many ways, would, if successful in Syria, greatly reduce Iran’s influence in the region. This is why Israel took the firm stancethat Asad had to go, although this did not evolve into a campaign to support the Syrian opposition.
However, as Damascus grew weaker and the role of Iran in the military conflict increased, Israel’s position started to change. This was primarily due to the commencement of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria in the second half of 2015. Like the Sunni-majority countries in the region, Israel was counting on the Russian military presence to contain and control Asad and, more importantly, Iran. Thus, Israel expected the Syrian war to proceed in a more predictable manner, because neither the potential risk of radical forces coming to power in Syria nor the comprehensive victory of government forces, and therefore Iran, would be in Israel’s interests.
The principle of Israel’s non-involvement in the Syrian conflict, as well as its rejection of the possibility of replacing the Asad government that the country’s leadership has repeatedly stressed at meetings with their Russian counterparts, has in many respects served as a guarantee for Moscow that Israel was concerned exclusively about its own national security. In other words, the threat to Damascus is a ‘red line’ for Moscow, and Israel has thus far indicated that it does not intend to cross it.
Nevertheless, should Iran strengthen its political and military positions in Syria, at the same time that the government in Damascus is stabilising and restoring its control over the country’s territory, this would radically alter Israel’s deliberate distancing from participation in the military conflict. The situation in Syria changed drastically on 10 February 2018, when the Israeli Air Force incapacitated almost half of all Syrian missile defence systems in response to a violation of its airspace by an Iranian drone launched from Syria. During the attack, one of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets was shot down by the Syrian air defence system near Haifa. Given that the Syrian government is no longer in self-preservation mode, and the last opposition enclave in East Ghouta was swallowed up by the Syrian Army in April 2018 (a process that Moscow calls transforming the de-escalation zones ‘in line with peaceful settlement’), it was a matter of time before things started to heat up between Iran and Israel in the country’s southwest. The point here is that the southern de-escalation zone, like similar areas in Syria, turned out to be nothing more than a temporary measure to freeze the conflict. The issue of Golan Heights, whose border had been peaceful for decades, and where the Israeli and Syrian militaries have served under the supervision of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, is becoming both a subject of political dispute and a potential zone of military escalation.
Escalation on the border of the occupied Golan Heights could radically change Israel’s position with regard to the Syrian conflict. In negotiations with Russia, Israel insists on the Golan Heights issue being a ‘red line’ and that ‘with or without an agreement, Golan Heights will remain part of Israel’s sovereign territory’. Israel’s policy of distancing itself from the conflict in its neighbourhood had become noticeably less pronounced. The events in Syria’s south are starting to resemble the 1982 Lebanon War, at least in terms of the scale of Israel’s military operations against Syria. The involvement of the Syrian air defence systems that shot down the Israeli fighter jet on 10 February made Damascus a party to the conflict that is unfolding between Iran and Israel.
In conditions where Damascus is carrying out an offensive campaign near the borders with Israel together with pro-Iranian forces, as far as the Israeli’s military leaders (who are known for being uncompromising) are concerned, the line between the pro-Iranian forces and Damascus is being eroded. In other words, any provocation by Iran aimed at probing the ‘red lines’ set by Israel automatically implies the involvement of Damascus, which could dramatically change Israel’s position on the need to remove the Asad government.
In addition to eliminating the supposed danger, Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hizbullah positions in Syria have two additional goals: to demonstrate to Damascus that its alliance with Iran is dangerous for the survival of the Asad government, and to let Moscow know that, in pursuing its policy in the region, it is not in Russian long-term interests to rely on Shi'a militias. Moscow understands the risks associated with Damascus becoming directly involved in the confrontation between Iran and Israel. The influence of Iran, operationally and politically, on the Syrian government has made its armed forces dependent on Iranian support, and has made Russia dependent on pro-Iranian units when carrying out its operations. Thus, the issue of Iran is extremely threatening to relations between Russia and Israel.
Military cooperation between Russia, Iran and Hizbullah within the framework of the coordination centre in Baghdad cannot but alarm Israel. Thanks to joint military operations in Syria, where pro-Iranian units and the Syrian Army provide ground support and a Russian airborne tactical formation guards the skies, Moscow and Tehran have significantly deepened their military cooperation. Additionally, according to certain media reports, Iran could violate the UN embargo on the import of weapons by receiving certain types of Russian weapons through Syria and sending equipment to Russia for servicing.
Further, during joint military operations with Russia, Hizbullah significantly improved the quality of its combat training and tactical planning and obtained access to better intelligence following joint work of the military staff of the Russian Armed Forces and Hizbullah in Damascus and Latakia. Hizbullah has also mastered its offensive military tactics in Syria, which could have grave consequences for Israel, whose leadership seriously fears Hizbullah, which boasts some 10 000 fighters in Syria. Many in Israel are wondering when, rather than if, and under what circumstances, another war with Hizbullah might break out.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Israel’s stance on the danger posed by Iran and Hizbullah did not always resonate with the Kremlin. For example, days before Russia launched its military operation in Syria in September 2015, in a meeting with Netanyahu, Putin rejected the Israeli assertion that Iran was, in collaboration with the Syrian Army, attempting to create a ‘second terrorist front’ against Israel in the Golan, saying, ‘The Syrian Army, and Syria in general, is in such a state that it is not even entertaining thoughts about opening up a second front, as it is trying to save its own statehood.’ Nevertheless, Putin did acknowledge that rocket attacks had been launched against Israel. Several key Russian politicians expressed the same position, including the Russian minister of foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, and the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov.
Despite Russia’s clear position on Israel’s security and the role that Iran plays in it, Moscow has given Israel considerable operational freedom. Thus, Moscow refrained from criticising Israeli operationsto destroy convoys transporting weapons (often Russian) across Syrian territory for Hizbullah. That was until the second half of 2015, when Israeli air operations obstructed Russian air defence systems deployed in Syria. Former Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, also confirmed that, since an emergency channel of communication between the Hmeimim Air Base and the Kiriya Command Centre in Tel Aviv was set up in 2015, Israel has not had to inform Moscow about forthcoming operations, since Russia independently identified Israeli fighter jets and did not consider it necessary to interfere in their operations.
Despite Moscow’s operational dependence on pro-Iranian forces, and despite the strategic proximity of the positions of Russia and Israel on Syria, Russia is unlikely to back either Iran or Israel should an open confrontation break out between them. From a strategic point of view, there is no good option for Moscow in this conflict, other than to strive for balance and to position itself as a referee. Whatever position it takes, Russia’s balancing act between Iran and Israel will inevitably seem like crisis management, and the political dividends of this role will be minimal. One example of this type of crisis response was the telephone call from Putin to Netanyahu on 10 February 2018, which ended the spiralling escalation between Israel and Syria.
Moscow aims to maintain a balance in the Iran-Russia-Israel triangle. In this context, in 2017, Lavrov stated that Iranian units were in Syria legitimately, at the invitation of the Syrian government. In July 2018, he added that it was unrealistic to expect Iran to leave the country soon. At the same time, Lavrov criticised Tehran for calling for Israel’s destruction. Russia also maintains a balanced position on the issue of Golan Heights. All official statements and documents, includingthe Final Statement of the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue held in Sochi, as well as materials published by the Russian ministry of defence, recognise this region as a part of Syria.This notwithstanding, Russian fighter jets avoid violating the airspace of the Golan Heights, de factorecognising Israel’s sovereignty over the region.
Against the background of escalation in the south of Syria, Israeli media reported in late May that Russia and Israel had reached an agreement on Iran. According to the deal, Israel agreed to return the areas in the southern de-escalation zone that border Golan Heights and Jordan to the partial control of the Syrian Army. Russia, in turn, guaranteed that pro-Iranian Shi'a forces would not be present on the border with Israel, and undertook to withdraw foreign troops from the country. The degree to which the agreement will be implemented in its current form remains unclear. However, in late July, the Russian presidential special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Shi'a units and heavy equipment and weaponry had been withdrawn to 85km from the demarcation line with Israel (yet at the same time confirming that Iranian advisers were permitted to be present in the Syrian Army within this radius). It is not clear what Moscow’s position on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria actually is, as the statements of Russian officials often involve mutually exclusive solutions. For example, in November 2017, the minister of foreign affairs announced that Iran was in Syria legitimately at the request of the Syrian government and that Moscow had never promised to ensure the withdrawal of pro-Iranian troops from the country. Nevertheless, in May 2018, Lavrentiev said that the entire foreign contingent, including Hizbullah and Iranian forces, had to be withdrawn.
Recent events have proven that Israel is prepared, and would prefer, to settle the issue regarding the southwestern borders of Syria via negotiations through an intermediary. However, Israel has made it abundantly clear that its ‘red lines’ – the presence of Iran and Hizbullah on its borders – had not shifted. This is why the failure of Russian attempts to achieve a compromise settlement could lead to Israel’s unilateral attempts to resolve the issue militarily, which will affect both the Asad government and Russian interests in Syria.
The terms of the agreement between Russia and Israel on Iran have also not been disclosed. Like Russia, Iran was officially invited to Syria by the Damascus government. While Russia can complain about the illegitimacy of the presence of US troops in Syria, similar, even veiled, attacks on Iran would be seen as unfriendly not only in Tehran, but also in Damascus.
According to some researchers, Iran has set up permanent military bases inside Syria which can accommodate up to 10 000 troops under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Russia can benefit from the weakening of Tehran’s military positions in Syria, which it regards as an obstacle to a peaceful settlement, because they create the illusion in Damascus that a military option for resolving the conflict remains open. However, Russia has few political levers to enact a recalibration of Iran’s position. Tehran has already stated that no one has the right to demand Iran’s withdrawal from Syria. Therefore, the Israeli campaign to prevent Iranian forces from taking root in Syria benefits Russia too, as long as it does not look like an open provocation. This could also have a negative effect on the future of the last de-escalation zone in Idlib, which Lavrentiev said will not be a site of any major military operations. The statements by Asad about the forthcoming Idlib campaign, and the fact that Iranian forces are concentrated on the border of Idlib, suggest that, as far as Tehran and Damascus are concerned, a military operation has not been ruled out.
There are currently doubts about Russia’s ability – and political expediency – to impede the establishment of Iranian forces outside the southwest region, despite reports in the Israeli media that Moscow prevented Iran from setting up a naval base in Tartus. In all probability, the most that Russia can guarantee is a reduction in the presence of pro-Iranian troops within a given radius of the Israeli border; it may suggest extending the existing radius beyond the current eighty-five kilometres. In any case, Moscow kept pro-Iranian forces from taking part in an offensive operation in the southwest of Syria, and, according to some reports, caused the withdrawal of some Hizbullah units from the border areas in Syria to Lebanon.
Most likely, Moscow will insist on the partial demilitarisation of southwest Syria and will assume a significant role in guaranteeing security in the region. Thus, as part of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 350 adopted in 1974 on the disengagement of Syrian and Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, the Russian Military Police helped redeploy the UN Peacekeeping Mission to the demilitarised zone for the first time since 2012. In addition, Russia plans to deploy eight observation stations along the demilitarised zone as a temporary measure to protect the UN contingent. However, it is possible that Russia will maintain a permanent military presence in the region.
It appears that Iran was prepared to partially reduce its presence in southern Syria, at the very least in order to protect its own forces in the country. Just how long and how rigorously this zone might remain ‘Iran-free’, however, is up for debate. There are a number of reasons for this: the 85-kilometre radius includes Damascus, with its strategically important crossing to Lebanon, and the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, an important place of pilgrimage for Shi'a Muslims. The presence of Iranian forces in the southwest is necessary primarily to support the land bridge from Tehran to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Thus, by securing limited Iranian presence in the region, Moscow addressed the symptom, rather than the problem itself, meaning that it has achieved only a temporary and localised de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran.
By withdrawing Shi'a forces from the line of mutual disengagement of forces, Russia has guaranteed the security of Israel’s borders in the medium term. While the IRGC and Shi'a groups are being redeployed to the regions of instability in the Deir ez-Zor and Idlib governorates, the issue of Iran’s military presence in Syria is likely to fade into the background of Russia-Israel relations. This notwithstanding, Israel has made it clear to Moscow that it regards the entrenchment of Iranian troops across the country as unacceptable; there is a clear difference of opinion between Russia and Israel on this.
Outside southern Syria, the coastal regions and Hama, where Russia has a strong presence, Moscow will find it difficult to restrain Iran, particularly in conditions where Asad is skilfully manoeuvring between the interests of the two countries. It will also not be easy for Russia to keep Iran from deploying its air defence systems and surface-to-surface missiles, which is another ‘red line’ for Israel.
Russia will accept a confrontation between Israel and Iran that does not develop into a war but is marked by the regular probing of each other’s ‘red lines’. Moscow cannot demand that Iran reduce its military capabilities while Russia has entrenched itself in Syria with two military bases. Thus, Israel’s campaign to consistently undermine Iran’s military capabilities on the ground and weaken its influence partly fulfils the functions that Russia would like to take on itself but cannot for political reasons.
Moscow will likely reconcile with Tehran’s desire for a military presence in Syria, while assuming the responsibility for monitoring the areas of Iranian deployment and the weapons that it will obtain. It should be noted that Russia has little influence over Iran’s decisions with regard to Syria. A key player in limiting Iran’s influence is Asad himself; he has thus far skilfully balanced the interests of his two allies, using the complex dynamics between them to his advantage.
Iran’s presence in Syria has evolved over the course of the conflict. The Syrian National Defence Forces, effectively a parallel army with approximately 50 000 personnel, are sponsored and trained primarily by Iran. Further, home-grown militia were created and are under the protection of Iran, such as Hizbullah in Syria (Hizbullah fi Suriya), suggesting that the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country will still allow Iran to maintain significant influence on security matters across Syria, including in the southwest. For this reason, the issue that Russia will have to solve in the long term in Syria is not the number of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers and Shi'a fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan deployed in Syria under the Asad’s protection, but rather how the Syrian Armed Forces will be made up in the post-war period and what role Iran will play in security sector reform.
Closely intertwined with the growing confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria is the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or, rather, the US withdrawal from the agreement on 8 May 2018. Trump’s decision to reject the JCPOA was fully supported, and partially reinforced, by Netanyahu, who produced an archive of documents allegedly proving Iran’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons several days before the US announcement. Both Russia and Israel should be concerned by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, primarily because Iran’s response could be asymmetrical and involve a more aggressive military strategy in Syria, as well as attempts to take it out on one of Washington’s key allies, Israel.
Significant in this regard was an incident on 10 May 2018, when Iran’s elite Quds Force launched thirty-two rockets at the Golan Heights from Syria; Israel responded with strikes targeting a number of military facilities and an ammunition storage dump. This event is important, first, because it was the first time that Iran had committed such actions. The episode, just two days after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, may be interpreted as a harbinger of what the confrontation between Iran and Israel could resemble in the event of an asymmetric Iranian response to US actions. It also marked the merging of the Syrian conflict and the nuclear agreement into a single political issue for Israel.
The strategy of the USA and Israel on the JCPOA raises the suspicion that the US withdrawal was necessary to force Iran to respond and resume its nuclear programme. Even if Tehran did not make such a decision, the fact that there is suspicion over Iran’s intentions and mistrust will serve as an argument for the USA and its allies to pursue a more aggressive policy of isolation and deterrence. Israel supports a military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, but it does not have a strategy for dealing with it politically. Military confrontation with Iran and a scenario of containment is far more understandable to the Israeli leadership than political confrontation in a state of coexistence. At the same time, it is clear that if the nuclear deal falls through, Israel will likely pay the highest price.
Although Israel played no role in negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, the nuclear deal was seen as part of the general policy to contain Iran by both the USA and Israel. Even if Israel is not a key player in diplomatic negotiations, it is clearly seen as a critical player in deterring Iran, being capable of taking unilateral steps to degrade Iranian nuclear infrastructure. In March 2018, ten years after the incident, Israel admitted it had deployed Israeli fighter jets to strike a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, an admission that was meant to indicate to Iran that Israel was ready to launch a military strike on Iran if it believed the latter has resumed its nuclear programme.
Nevertheless, not all Israelis share Netanyahu’s view that the JCPOA was a historical mistake. For example, the chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eizenkot, expressed confidence that ‘right now the agreement, despite all its faults, works and prevents the implementation of the Iranian nuclear programme for the next 10-15 years’. The agreement with Iran did not bring the country any closer to the nuclear bomb that Netanyahu talked about. On the contrary, it was built on the fundamental distrust of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and based on the need for verification.
Within Israeli military circles, a more pragmatic position on the JCPOA has taken root, and it is with people in these circles that Moscow needs to build a more substantive dialogue on the Iranian nuclear issue. Judging by the fact that the discourse on Iran has changed in Israel since the USA pulled out of the deal, with the focus turning to Tehran as a source of regional problems, the dialogue between Russia and Israel is likely to be narrow, and the main challenge that Moscow will face in this context will be to return the focus to the nuclear programme.
The biggest dilemma for Russia within the framework of the Iranian response to the failure of the nuclear deal will be to balance the interests of the various circles within the political elite in Iran. The Iranian leadership is not unanimous on the policy to be pursued in response to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Trump’s actions have left Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in the minority, despite his call for joint action with Europe, Russia and China to preserve the deal.
Rouhani made it clear to the European Union that Iran’s decision about whether it remains part of the JCPOA depends entirely on the EU. Despite the fact that sections of Iran’s leadership threatened to pull out of the deal as soon as Trump had made his announcement, a decision was nevertheless delayed until the EU took its own decision on the matter. It is clear that, despite the warlike rhetoric, which is often little more than populism, for Iran, the nuclear deal – or, more importantly, the potential economic benefits accompanying the deal – is extremely important.
Iranian hardliners reacted sharply to the US decision and sought Rouhani’s resignation, since they did not believe in the ability of the EU to preserve the deal without changing its terms or attaching the regional aspect of Iran’s foreign policy to it. The 10 May events in Syria made it clear that Tehran’s asymmetrical response to the failure of the JCPOA in the form of intentional military escalation is an acceptable option for Iran, or for at least part of the Iranian establishment. In this context, Iran’s campaign in Syria, led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, is becoming extremely risky for Moscow. As far as the USA, EU and Israel are concerned, negotiations on the nuclear deal could very well be combined with the questions of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, and its regional expansion. It should be noted that EU countries are more careful about expressing this position than the USA and Israel.
The positions of Tehran and Moscow remain unchanged. In the negotiation process, neither Russia nor Iran (whose negotiations on the nuclear agreement are still being overseen by Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister) is prepared to amend the JCPOA and tie new restrictive measures to the agreement. However, judging by recent events in Syria, as far as the Iranian hardliners are concerned, Syria itself has become an unofficial response to the JCPOA’s collapse. Under these conditions, Russia should clearly divide its negotiating tracks and categorically oppose attempts to ‘increase the pressure on Tehran due to circumstances unrelated to the JCPOA and which, to a large extent, have nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear programme’. Moscow will probably not be prepared to use the Syrian problem as a lever in multilateral negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal, as it understands the lack of unanimity on these issues in Tehran.
Against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis and growing tensions in the Middle East, the issue of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is gradually losing its relevance, and many experts now viewthe Middle East Quartet as an outdated format. Were it not for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the US Embassy there, the Palestinian issue would have remained on the global backburner.
Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, as it is being called in Washington, on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue effectively eliminates key elements of the peace process (the establishment of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees), forcing Palestinians to search for new allies. Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, sees Moscow as an actor that can possibly return the processes of recent months into the framework of existing negotiating agreements. The PA has openly asked Russia for this.
Russia has traditionally been clear on the issue of the Israel-Palestine resolution. Putin repeatedly expressed his position at meetings with his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts, emphasising that Russia’s principled position supported the right of Palestinians to self-determination, and that the result of any solution should involve the cessation of the Israeli occupation of Arab lands that began in 1967 and the creation of an independent State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Russia first offered to host negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in Moscow in 2005. The idea of holding direct talksbetween Abbas and Netanyahu was brought up in the meeting between the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Putin in August 2016. The first direct meeting between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders since 2010 was supposed to have taken place in Moscow in September 2016, but the parties blamed each other for its cancellation. Abbas claimed the Israelis had unilaterally cancelled the meeting, while the Israelis said Palestinian preconditionswere unacceptable.
Moscow made a number of attempts to organise a summit, most recently in June 2018, but they all failed to materialise. Obviously, getting Netanyahu and Abbas to meet with Russian mediation is not an end in itself for Moscow, and such a meeting is not capable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It could, however, help restart the peace process, the Russians hope. But the Russian mediation initiative, unsuccessful for the past two years, threatens to turn from an intermediate goal into mission impossible for Russian diplomacy.
Multiple international initiatives on Israeli-Palestinian settlement that already exist risk working against the role that Moscow hopes to play. For example, the French conference the issue in 2016, which was actively promoted by the former French president, François Hollande, went no further than a single meeting in Paris. By spearheading mediation efforts, Moscow risks again demonstrating that relaunching the peace process in its current format is impossible. This will assist Washington’s ‘deal of the century’, and will open the path to a review of the terms of the negotiation process based on new facts on the ground since new borders were determined in 1967.
For Russia, a more visible role in the Palestinian settlement would provide it with a unique opportunity to strengthen its clout in the Middle East outside the Syrian setting, that is, outside a military context. To some extent, Moscow’s efforts on this front have to do with its positioning vis-a-vis the USA, Europe and Israel, and many experts agree that, for Putin, the fact of Russia’s participation in the peace process could be more important than the final settlement itself. In this context, the PA’s expectation that Moscow will become the advocate of the Palestinian position in negotiations with Israel is misplaced, despite the fact that the two have similar stances on the issue.
For Abbas, getting Russia involved in the process serves both foreign and domestic policy goals. The PA, headed by Abbas, has been unable to form a sense of national cohesion for Palestinians, while the administration is deeply localised and territorially fragmented. Many Palestinians are disappointed with the ‘peace process’, which has relied on US initiative for over two decades. Russia’s attempts to take a more active role hopes to reboot, in a sense, the internal Palestinian discourse and gives additional internal political support to Abbas.
Israel is not keen on Russia’s initiatives. Moscow is attempting to get Israel to negotiate on the Palestinian issue, but it is clear that Israel is counting on the American ‘deal of the century’. Thus, in April 2017, for the first time ever, the Russian foreign ministry recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. This step, which was received well by Israeli media, should have kickstarted Russia’s negotiation process, but the Israeli leadership approached it with caution.
Despite the fact that Israel does not see Russia’s role as a mediator outside of international initiatives, Netanyahu needs to give at least some leeway to Putin’s mediation initiatives. It is extremely important for Israel to preserve its fragile partnership with Russia, as this partnership is closely linked with cooperation in Syria, while the deterioration in relations against the backdrop of disagreements on Palestine could well undermine the dialogue on Syria. The issue of Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state in the Middle East remains and, in light of Iran’s growing role in Syria, the Israel-Palestinian process becomes even more dependent on the regional context. This is another reason why the Israeli leadership may value Moscow’s support.
Moscow, however, does not view Palestine and Syria as related issues in its relations with Israel. Further, Russia sees the prospect of a Palestinian deal as a logical continuation of its role in the region, a process that was set in motion by the country’s military campaign in Syria. At the same time, however, policy toolkits for Palestine and Syria files will remain different.
* Yury Barminis an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He focuses on issues related to Syria, and consults for government and private clients on issues related to the Russian policy in the Middle East.
Vladimir Putin’s return to power in Russia in 2012 signified a dramatic change in the country’s foreign policy and military strategy. Scrapping the achievements of the Dmitry Medvedev era in the Kremlin, which was characterised by a thaw in relations with the West, Putin opted for a more aggressive approach to positioning the country in the international arena. Experts still argue what prompted this review of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, but the developments that likely had a major impact on Putin’s policy planning in 2012 included the war with Georgia in 2008, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) infamous military campaign in Libya, which brought down Russia’s long-time ally Muammar Qaddafi.
Contours of the new policy approach to the region started emerging when Russia updated two of its key documents, the ‘Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation’ and the ‘Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation’, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. This served as de facto justification for the Russian military campaign in Syria and the Concept became the first official document to elucidate the country’s ambition to play a bigger role in the MENA region. In the three years that divide the two concepts, Putin’s approach to foreign policy evolved and became increasingly securitised. (The word ‘terrorism’ features fifteen times in the 2013 Concept and thirty-five in the 2016 edition.) The Foreign Policy Concept also spells out the Russian president’s growing ambition to deal with instability at its origin, before it reaches Russian borders.
The rationale behind Russia’s re-emergence as a leading power in the Middle East was of a defensive nature and largely reactive. The uprisings in the region were a painful reminder of the Colour Revolutions that broke out across several post-Soviet states in the first half of the 2000s, and, according to the Kremlin, led to the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution in Ukraine. Putin himself believes that the MENA uprisings were a continuation of those Colour Revolutions and that both were foreign-instigated. A wave of revolutions across Eurasia convinced the Russian leadership that the possible domino effect of regime change would eventually target Russia. It is not coincidental that the Russian president likens Colour Revolutions and the MENA uprisings, and often makes no distinction between them. Commenting on anti-corruption protests in Russia in March 2017, he went as far as to call them ‘an instrument of the Arab Spring’.
A gradual withdrawal of the USA from the Middle East under Barack Obama meant that the region’s ‘policeman’ was no longer interested in maintaining order there, which arguably presented Moscow with numerous security challenges. Russia’s re-emergence in the Middle East happened, to a large extent, to fill some of the void left by the retreating Obama. In some cases it was effortless, such as in Egypt, where the US decision to cut aid to Cairo in 2013 led to the emergence of a budding Russia-Egypt alliance. In other contexts, most prominently in Syria, Russia had to invest significant diplomatic and military resources to marginalise the USA in the war and the peace process. What started out as an attempt to replace the USA where it was no longer interested in playing a leading role transformed into an ambition to challenge the USA even where it had no intention of retreating, for instance, in the Gulf region.
Russia’s return to the Middle East differs from the Soviet experience. Today, Moscow is extending its reach without the baggage of Soviet ideology. The idea of using its arms exports to the Middle East in the ideological struggle against the West evaporated when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) disintegrated and was replaced with the idea of making a profit for the cash-strapped budget. The Kremlin hopes to support its geopolitical claims with a strong pragmatic dimension.
In the Middle East, Moscow seeks to reinforce its influence there as well as offset the burden upon the Russian federal budget associated with the expenses of the Syrian campaign. Following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, Russia has used arms deals to reach out to Cold War-era allies in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria to consolidate a new power balance. During the Cold War, Wynfred Joshua and Stephen P. Gilbert wrote that as more countries became recipients of Soviet military aid programmes, there was a tendency for them to become greater political allies of the Soviet Union.
With Putin declaring victory over the Islamic State group (IS) during his December 2017 visit to Syria, Russia is faced with numerous opportunities and challenges. Its military operation in Syria may have put Russia back on the radar in the Middle East, and has solidified its position in the region. As Putin eyed re-election as president early March 2018, foreign policy achievements, chiefly in the MENA region, figured prominently in his election rhetoric.
An effect of Russia’s assertive foreign policy has become an expectation from regional partners and opponents alike that Moscow will be active in the Middle East. However, the hard power that brought Russia to prominence in the region will not be helpful to support long-term influence there, and could, in fact, produce a negative impact for Russia’s international standing. As a result, during his next term in office, Putin will be faced with a challenge to depart from hard power, his preferred modus operandi, to embrace a spectrum of other tools that will help make Russia’s presence in the region lasting and sustainable.
From Status Quo disruptor to Status Quo creator
New Military Positioning
In the next few years, due to Russia’s gains in Syria, Moscow will be recalibrating its military position in the wider region. The most significant of its gains has to do with the establishment of permanent military bases in Syria. In December 2017, the Russian parliament approved the agreements with the Syrian government leasing the Tartus and Hmeymim bases to Russia for forty-nine years with an automatic twenty-five-year extension.
The establishment of a permanent military presence in Syria fits with Russia’s strategy to acquire air and naval supremacy in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, and signals the restoration of the Soviet strategy toward the region. From 1967 until the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet 5th Squadron operated in the Mediterranean, despite Moscow having no permanent bases in the region. In 2013, the Russian president made a decision to revive a perpetual naval presence there and ordered the establishment of the Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) within the Black Sea Fleet.
Russia has developed what some analysts call an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Mediterranean. Along with the deployment of the S-400 air-defence system to Syria in November 2015 (and to Crimea, in August 2016), the Russian naval group in the eastern Mediterranean is equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles and P-800 Onyx anti-ship missiles, which create an added advantage against a potential enemy. given its security problems, which affect the whole international community.
Russia is increasing its military cooperation with Cairo, a partner with which Moscow had a strong partnership under Gamal Abdel Nasser and now with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Military-technical cooperation between the two countries is on the rise. More importantly, this cooperation now extends to annual joint naval drills as Russia looks for additional access to Egypt’s military infrastructure. Moreover, in order to simultaneously boost its Libya portfolio, Russia reportedly boosted the frequency of its use of Egyptian facilities at the border with Libya, including the port of Marsa Matrouh and the base at Sidi Barrani, once used by the Soviet Union. Moscow may now wish to revive, and even expand, this type of relationship.
At the same time, Russia has been increasingly looking at warm-water ports in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the 2000s. Moscow has significantly stepped up diplomatic engagement with each of these states over the past twenty years since the Soviet collapse. Moreover, in 2006, the two governments signed Algeria’s largest post-Cold War arms deal, amounting to $7.5 billion. Moreover, the two countries signed an agreement on counter terrorism cooperation in 2016, and have held two rounds of consultations on stepping up joint countering of violent extremism in North Africa and setting up regular exchanges of intelligence on extremist groups. The issue of Western Sahara is the kind of political leverage that Russia could use in order to position itself as a go-to mediator for Morocco.
Military presence in the Mediterranean may be only the first step in Moscow’s ambitious naval expansion. With the MTF deployed to the Mediterranean in 2013, Russia also started demonstrating a keen interest in the Red Sea, sending its warships there for drills as well as to project power. It is yet to be seen how Russia feels about setting up such a base so soon after acquiring a permanent military foothold in the Mediterranean. But proposals like this are indicative of how local powers perceive Russia’s growing role in the region.
It is in Russia’s long-term interest to continue expanding its military capabilities in the Mediterranean to support existing bases in Syria, linking its northern and Black Sea fleets’ operations in the Atlantic, as well as to obtain more leverage against NATO. Given failed Soviet attempts to set up a military presence in Egypt and Libya, Russia may finally revisit this idea.
Channelling growing military clout toward political sustainability
The key challenges facing Russia in the next few years concern how to convert gains made in Syria into sustainable political influence in the wider region. Military power projected by Moscow in the Syrian conflict and, by extension, its political clout, have allowed it to be recognised as a leading external power in the Middle East. Once the fighting dies down, however, Moscow will have a hard time maintaining its relevance in the region at the same level.
Without ways to project political power in the Middle East, Russian military forces there will be irrelevant. The bottom line is that hard power is a crisis management tool but not an agenda setting one. Moscow’s military clout in the region has reached the level at which it guarantees Russia presence in the Middle East, but it does not guarantee long-term political influence.
For Russia to replace the United States as the guarantor of security in the Middle East, it needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the region. But if Putin looks to preserve his country’s influence in the region, he will need to come up with ways to engage partners that would convince them of Russia’s resolve. With the Middle East not being the most strategically important region to Moscow, Putin will need to decide exactly how much influence he actually wants to project in the region. Maintaining the image of a great power in the Middle East will require Russia to invest diplomatically and financially in the resolution of other crises, such as the Libyan war and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. However, these investments will chiefly concern maintaining stability in the region and will not yield fast returns.
Finally, Russia will need to set a long-term agenda for the Middle East. Moscow’s Middle East strategy has thus far been characterised by short-termism, with its actions being largely reactive and most decisions ad hoc. This was evidenced by the fact that Russia’s bid on Iran’s ground forces as the main fighting force in Syria later led to multiple attempts by Tehran to hijack international agreements on the ground and undermine Moscow’s mediation attempts. According to him, the mechanism should include the Arab countries as well as Turkey, Iran and Israel. The collective security system must consist of three tracks or ‘baskets’: security, economy and humanitarian cooperation. Disarmament in the Middle East should become a starting point for the discussion on a regional security system. The first steps in this direction could be the creation of demilitarised zones, the prohibition of destabilising accumulations of conventional weapons (including anti-missile weapons), and a balanced reduction of armed forces by the main military powers in the region and neighbouring countries.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2015, when he announced the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria, Putin proposed creating a global anti-IS coalition ‘similar to the anti-Hitler’ alliance. The proposal, which he has voiced several times in the course of the Russian operation in Syria, pointedly feeds into the idea of creating a regional security system. The viability of a regional anti-IS alliance was demonstrated when Turkey, Iran and Russia partnered to implement de-escalation zones in Syria. Egypt and Jordan played a distinct role in the negotiation process on the creation of de-escalation zones and their implementation, and Putin may try to institutionalise what looks a lot like a regional anti-extremist alliance. An anti-terrorist alliance that could later transform into a collective security system seems to be one of the few areas in which Russia is willing to commit resources, based both on Russia’s domestic security concerns and its foreign policy calculations.
Old and New Partners
With Russia’s military position gradually readjusting as a result of the Syrian conflict, its partnerships night also eventually undergo a broader rethink. Russia will need to find a way to reach out to Sunni Arab powers and win their trust, which was undermined by Russia’s perceived alliance with the Shi'a in the Syrian conflict. According to Pew Research, as of mid-2017, only 28 per cent of people in the Middle East expressed confidence in Russia and Putin’s foreign policy, and only 35 per cent had a favourable view of Russia. The process of reconstruction in Syria also means that Russia and Iran will have to shoulder a heavy financial burden if they want to continue to play a leading political role in the country; neither, however, is capable of doing that. Consequently, Russia has asked world powers, to chip in, which will require a significant draw-down in Iran’s political role in Syria.
While Russia’s relationship with Iran is set to become rockier, there is no guarantee that Moscow’s ties with Sunni powers, specifically Saudi Arabia, will transform into a real partnership. The visit of the Saudi king, Salman, to Moscow in October 2017 may have indicated a positive dynamic in bilateral relations, but it was largely prompted by the Saudi domestic dynamic rather than a genuine desire to reach out to Moscow. The biggest achievement that Moscow and Riyadh can boast about is that they managed to compartmentalise their relations, as demonstrated by the oil deal reached by Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in November 2016, despite the ongoing Syria crisis.
Dichotomy Between Stability and Managed Democracy
Experts who had argued that authoritarianism in the Middle East would maintain stability and keep extremism at bay were proven wrong by the events of the Arab uprisings.
In Turkey, the July 2016 attempted coup was used by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as an excuse to crack down not only on suspected plotters, but also on wider circles critical of the government’s policies. Western powers rebuked Erdoğan over his suspension of the rule of law and mass detentions – but Russia pointedly did not. Putin was the one world leader who called Erdoğan to tell him Moscow supported his campaign to root out dissent, which the Turkish president described as ‘anti-constitutional’. All this occurred just weeks after Erdoğan’s late June apology to Russia for the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 jet over Syria, and it shows how masterfully Putin uses authoritarian movements to his own political benefit.
Egypt is experiencing a similar wave of authoritarianism, with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi cracking down on dissent that is not necessarily associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. That government campaign is happening against the backdrop of economic instability, currency devaluation and increased poverty rates. However, the army’s grip on power and full control over the public sphere give a semblance of stability. Sisi’s fight to eradicate extremism in the Sinai and his crackdown on dissent find support in Moscow, as reflected in official statements from the Kremlin. Egypt reemerged as Russia’s key partner in the Middle East, including in crucial spheres of military-technical cooperation. The two countries signed a protocol on military cooperation in March 2015, significantly ramped up joint military exercises, and are looking to green light an agreement that would allow Russian military aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and infrastructure.
A combination of factors bolstered Russia’s commitment to intervention in Syria. First, geopolitically, the fall of Asad would mean humiliation for Russia, his main global ally, and would deprive Moscow of a springboard to the rest of the Middle East. Second, from a pragmatic standpoint, Syria’s proximity to Russia, coupled with its becoming a training camp for jihadists from the former Soviet Union, meant that the civil war there was becoming a national security issue for Moscow. Hence, Putin undertook this risky affair albeit with no guaranteed outcome.
Syria, however, gives one a skewed idea as to how Russia’s strategy toward the region may look in the future. The military campaign in Syria cost Russia $484 million, according to Putin, These costs have been offset by returns on arms contracts and the existing budget for drills. This sum is manageable for the federal budget, even despite low oil prices. Russia’s defence spending has been continuously growing from 2010; its share in the GDP increased from 3.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent in 2016. Syria was the reason that the Ministry of Defense managed to secure a larger budget until 2016, but it is also the reason that Moscow now looks for ways to cut the overinflated defence expenses. This indicates that the Syria operation is an exceptional affair that Russia is unlikely to repeat elsewhere in the Middle East due to geopolitical risks as well as financial costs that are already too high.
With the focus previously exclusively on Syria, the Russian foreign policy agenda toward the Middle East appears highly securitised. Meanwhile, the military and intelligence circles took charge over policy making towards the region. Despite a wide range of goals that Moscow pursues in Syria, the distinct focus on security issues stoked fears over Russia seeking a military foothold in the Middle East by US officials.
While Syria is a special case, Libya might provide more insight into how Russia will position itself vis-à-vis conflicts in the Middle East in the future. Following the fall of its partner Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Moscow did not show much interest in the Libyan conflict, essentially leaving it to NATO to deal with. At the same time, Libya was a convenient case to revert to in order to lambaste the West each time Russia felt its interests in the Middle East were ignored.
Russia re-emerged on the Libya scene pronouncing no specific agenda and making incoherent statements about the desired endgame as the Libyan civil war erupted. In 2016, following Haftar’s visit to Moscow, the international community was convinced that the Kremlin was looking at Libya within the context of where it would continue to project military power once the conflict in Syria is over. The Russian ambassador to Libya, Ivan Molotkov, publicly spoke of a possible delivery of Russian weapons to the government in Tobruq. Many experts predicted a Russian military operation in the country and looked for signs of a military build-up, but those predictions were repeatedly proven wrong.
This approach worked, and Russia became a go-to power for various parties to the Libyan conflict. Moscow hosted representatives of the Tripoli government as well as representatives from Misrata, the two major power centres in Libya. More importantly, Russia facilitated direct talks between Tripoli and the Touareg and Tobu tribes in November 2017, the first such talks between these parties, given the fact that the tribes had not sided with any party yet. This marks the emergence of a fundamentally new approach to conflict resolution in Russia. Hypothetically, Russian military aid and diplomatic support for Haftar could have resulted in the capture of Tripoli by his Libyan National Army, marking the end of the Libyan Political Agreement. Moscow, however, made a U-turn away from Haftar and opted for a more balanced position towards the settlement of the conflict, which helped it be recognised as a key power broker by all sides in this conflict.
The ‘strategic equidistance’’ approach that Russia adopted in Libya is something Putin might explore further in the future. There are numerous signs that Russia will attempt to become a referee and power broker in other contexts in the Middle East as well. One example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Russia did not issue harsh criticism of either the USA or Israel. The Russian Foreign Ministry limited its response to ‘serious concern’.
Russia’s relatively calm reaction to Trump’s move and Israel’s policies toward Palestine can be explained by Moscow’s growing ambition to play a bigger role in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia intensified its diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2016, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited both in an attempt to bridge their differences. Later, in January 2017, Russia hosted all major Palestinian political organisations, Saudi Arabia pursued a similar charm offensive, which culminated in King Salman’s visit to Russia.
As Syria gradually falls from the top of Russia’s political agenda in the Middle East over the next years, Moscow will look for new ways to stay relevant in the region. Russia’s permanent military bases in Syria have the potential to change the power balance in the Mediterranean. Moscow has created a heavily guarded perimeter in the eastern Mediterranean by deploying air defence capabilities to Syria, complementing its permanent naval force in those waters. Together, these deployments and growing capabilities will become a challenge for NATO as Moscow spreads its presence into the alliance’s naval underbelly in the Mediterranean. Russia is also expanding military cooperation with Egypt and the future government in Libya, and is expanding its naval presence in the Red Sea.
Politically, however, hard power will produce fewer benefits for Moscow, at higher costs, which is why the Russian government will need to discover new ways to remain relevant in the regional arena. Having used Syria to rebuild its image as a regional power, Russia is faced with the challenge of how to balance its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of which is a true ally for Moscow. In order to forge stronger regional alliances, Putin might revisit the idea of a global anti-terrorist coalition, which feeds into the concept of a regional system of collective security widely discussed by Russian policymakers.
Trying to insert itself in regional politics in the post-Syria era, Russia is likely to rebrand its image in the Middle East and position itself as a regional referee in an attempt to offset the negative impact of the Syrian conflict for its image. Being a regional referee, however, does not necessarily translate into being a supporter of democracy. The legacy of the MENA uprisings and Russia’s own experience with democratic movements led Putin to believe that authoritarian stability may help the Middle East overcome its security problems. And Russia’s military campaign in Syria has further crystallised this notion for the Kremlin.
* Yuri Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, covering the Middle East and North Africa, and Moscow’s policy towards the region
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