Things are escalating again in one of Syria’s many wars. Last Sunday, 29th April, two massive strikes – presumed by Israel – reportedly hit the Syrian Arab Army’s 47th Brigade military base and arms depots near Hama, as well as Nairab Military Airport in Aleppo. The attack, thought to have been carried out using powerful ‘bunker-buster’ missiles, created a fireball which could be seen for miles, and triggered a shock measuring 2.6 on the Richter scale, felt as far as Turkey and Lebanon. It is thought the strikes targeted Iranian surface-to-surface missiles intended for deployment in Syria, and killed 26 – 38 people, including 11 Iranians.
The attack appears to have been coordinated with the USA, coming just hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Jerusalem – where, according to Haaretz, he had “thrilled Netanyahu with hawkish talk on Iran”. That same day, noted the Times of Israel, “news also broke of a phone call between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump”, whilst Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was meeting his US counterpart James Mattis in Washington. This feverish activity came less than a week after “Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the US army’s Central Command, or CENTCOM, whose sphere of responsibility includes Syria and Iran, made a largely unpublicized visit to Israel.” The article concluded that “All this is beginning to look rather like a coordinated Israeli-American operation to limit Iran’s military activities in Syria — simultaneously conveying the message to Moscow that Russia’s green light for Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria is not acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington.” The war on Iran, in other words, has begun.
In hindsight, it has been underway for some time. Israel has reportedly conducted over 100 airstrikes in Syria since 2011, but a stepchange occurred last July. On July 9th 2017, Russia and the US agreed on a de-escalation zone in Southwest Syria, which, according to Foreign Policy journal analyst Jonathan Spyer, Israel believed “could seriously complicate the de facto Israeli safeguards in place against Iranian infiltration of the border”. In the four months which followed this agreement, Israeli jets made over 750 incursions into Syrian airspace, an average of six per day, and totalling 3200 hours in the country. Clearly, some serious reconnaissance activity was taking place. Then on October 16th, Israeli jets struck a Russian-supplied S-200 air defense battery in the Damascus area. The attack took place during a meeting in Tel Aviv between the Israeli and Russian Defence Ministers, and was perhaps calculated to send a message to Syria that they can not rely on Russian protection.
Then, in January 2018, with the battle against IS almost won, Rex Tillerson announced new goals for the 2000 US troops in Syria, vowing that they would remain until “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.” This was followed in February by calls by the French foreign minister for Iran to ‘leave Syria’, and a warning from the International Crisis Group that Israel had “updated its red lines – signalling it would take matters into its own hands if necessary to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria”.
Since then, Israel has moved from targeting Syrian army and Hezbollah convoys to the directly targeting of Iranian personnel and facilities.It’s shooting down of an Iranian drone on February 9th led to one of its own F-16s being downed by the Syrian army after it bombed the drone’s command centre, the first time an Israeli warplane had been shot down since the 1980s. Yet, in a very rare admission of responsibility, Israel still called the mission a success, claiming that between one third and one half of Syria’s air defences had been destroyed in the strikes.
Two months later, on April 9th, Israeli missiles again struck the same ‘T4’ military base they hit in February. The target this time, however, was specifically Iranian installations and equipment, and 14 Iranian soldiers were killed. According to one Israeli official, this was first time Israel had attacked ‘live Iranian targets’. It was also, apparently, the first time Israel had failed to inform Russia to provide advance warning of an upcoming strike, breaking the ‘de-confliction’ agreement made between Israel and Russia right at the start of Russian entry into the Syrian conflict in 2015.
Russia’s response was similarly unprecedented, with Russia immediately revealing Israel’s role in the attack, and Putin calling Netanyahu to warn him that Israel can no longer expect to be able to attack Syria with impunity. Then, following the US-UK-French airstrikes on Syria on 13th April, the chief of the Russian General Staff’s main operations directorate, Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, floated the idea of providing Syria with the powerful Russian-made S300 air defence system. The S300, capable of tracking up to 100 targets simultaneously over a range of 200km, “would create a no-go situation for Israel if allowed to be made operational by the Syrian regime”, according to former US naval officer Jennifer Dyer, adding that “The kinds of low-level, preemptive strikes (in Syria) the IAF [Israeli Air Force] has executed in the last few years, against Hezbollah targets and the special weapons targets of Iran and the Assad regime, would become virtually impossible. Israel would lose the ability to preempt the ‘build-up’ to war ”. Russia had originally signed a contract with Syria to deliver the S300 system in 2010, but this was scrapped after pressure from Israel. But, on April 23rd, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the decision to reverse that suspension and supply the S300 had now been made, with only the technical details left to iron out. Two days later, the Syrian embassy in Moscow claimed that the S300 had in fact already arrived a month ago and was being deployed. The Russian authorities immediately denied this, and reiterated that no final decision on whether or not to supply the S300 had in fact been taken. A few days later, the Israelis struck again, this time with their earth-shaking bunker busters, directly targeting Iranian troops and equipment for the second time. No S300, you see.
Media reports, both mainstream and alternative (my own included!), are increasingly nervous about the scenario now unfolding, and rightly so. Yet, whilst the danger of escalation and miscalculation – and specifically, the drawing in of Russia into the Israeli-Iranian conflict developing in Syria – remains real, many analysts have overstated the friction between Russia and Israel – and, indeed, the convergence of interests between Russia and Iran.
Despite both being opposed to western-backed regime change in Syria, Russian and Iranian objectives in the region are in fact very different. According to intelligence analysts Stratfor, “Russia’s strategic vision is chiefly focused on eliminating sources of instability and preventing U.S.-led military interventions”, with a “broader goal of establishing itself as an indispensable guarantor of collective security in the Middle East”. In Syria, therefore, the Russians have the “limited objective of ensuring that Assad controls enough territory to negotiate with Syrian opposition factions from a position of strength” in order to create a mediated, negotiated settlement, overseen and guaranteed by Russia.
The Iranians, however, are more focused on “containing Saudi Arabia’s power projection capacity across the Arab world”, leading to an “unwillingness to suspend military operations in Syria until Assad has completely vanquished opposition forces….Iran’s belief in the feasibility of a military solution in Syria has made it less willing than Russia to diplomatically engage with Syrian opposition or Kurdish factions during diplomatic negotiations, limiting the scope of the Moscow-Tehran partnership.” Furthermore, “Iran’s use of Syrian territory to create a permanent transit point of weaponry to Hezbollah has alarmed Russian policymakers who seek to preserve strong relations with Israel.”
From this point of view, far from seeking to protect Iranian entrenchment in Syria, Russia has a direct interest in restricting it. Israel’s strikes may thus serve a function for Russia, putting pressure on Iran to ‘rein in’ the activities Russia views as disruptive to its own aims. Furthermore, Russia may believe that the Iranian presence in Iran – as an alternative source of support for President Assad – makes the Syrian government itself less willing to sign up to Russia’s diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, on a very basic level, a reduced Iranian presence leaves Assad more thoroughly dependent on Russia – a point, no doubt, made by Netanyahu on at least one of his seven meetings with Putin over the last year. And anyway, a cynic might argue, now the rebellion has been all but quashed, haven’t the Iranians served their purpose?
Many people claim that the alliance with Iran is too important for Russia to risk a gambit like this. And no doubt it is. But what if there is no risk? Whilst the Russian-Iranian alliance remains crucial for Moscow’s projection of power into the Middle East, Russia may well calculate that Iran has no interest in jeopardising this however poorly they are treated by their Russian ‘ally’ in Syria. After all, the provision of protection against a US attack on Iran is hardly a buyer’s market – Russia is a monopoly supplier. Safe in the knowledge that Iran really has no-one else to turn to, Russia can afford to let Israel loose on them.
Certainly, Israel’s belligerent Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman does not appear to see Russia as an obstacle to Israeli plans for Syria. “What is important to understand is that the Russians, they are very pragmatic players,” he said in Washington recently, “At the end of the day, they are reasonable guys, it’s possible to close deals with them and we understand what is their interest,”. He certainly doesn’t sound like he is referring to a steadfast ally of Israel’s number one foe.
It may even be that Russia are still, against all hope, expecting to get something out of the Trump administration, in the form of sanctions relief, or at least some recognition of their security concerns in Ukraine and eastern Europe. Such hopes are surely forlorn.
I would like to think Russia is not so cynical as to stand back and allow Israeli aggression against Iran in order to gain leverage in its own relationship with both the Iranians and Syrians, nor so naive as to expect anything from the US. But the omens are not good. The failure to deliver the S300s, or to create any other meaningful deterrent, even after the opening shots in this new war on Iran were fired on April 9th, suggests either cowardice or collusion. And the Russians are not cowards.
Yet acquiescing to western aggression has not turned out well for the Russians in the past. Their failure to veto the UN-blessed crucifixion of Iraq in 1991, let’s not forget, was rewarded with nothing more than an economic straitjacket leading to the biggest collapse of living standards (outside of war) in recorded history. Twenty years later, when Russia agreed not to veto the west’s destruction of Libya, what followed was not gratitude, or acceptance, or respect, but western support for an anti-Russian fascist coup on Russia’s western flank, followed by the imposition of a vicious sanctions regime.
If Russia really are going to allow their erstwhile Iranian comrades to get wiped out, they really should understand that this is not simply a matter of Israel’s ‘legitimate security concerns’. This is about eliminating Iran’s chance of building up a deterrent in advance of an all-out war against Iran itself. And the destruction of states such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran is, in turn, about isolating Russia when its own turn comes. This year will see the 80th anniversary of the Munich agreement, another occasion when major powers sacrificed supposed allies in the hope of saving their own skins. That didn’t go so well. Never mind the S300s, Russia need to provide S400s to the Syrian Arab Army and put a stop to this new war before its too late.