Last Saturday’s flare-up following the downing of an Iranian drone over Israeli territory brings Russia’s regional predicament into full view.
Moscow’s planes and air defenses did not take part in the fighting. Can Russian President Vladimir Putin remain neutral should another Iranian provocation lead to an additional, perhaps stronger Israeli response? Had Russia taken into consideration the long-range implications of its intervention in Syria?
On the one hand, Russia has reached its main objective—setting up naval and air bases on the Mediterranean, and regaining its position as a major world power rivaling the strength of the U.S. On the other hand, the Kremlin is floundering in the quagmire of Syria’s civil war. The conflicting regional interests between Russia and Israel, despite the otherwise positive relations between Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is only one aspect of the problem.
Syria has become the playing field of major Muslim and Arab countries, such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who are all bent on furthering long-range strategic plans threatening the integrity and stability of Syria, and Russia’s continued presence there. Iran is making an all-out effort to establish itself in the country, threaten Israel and pursue its dream of a Shi’a crescent in the Middle East. Turkey is determined to prevent the creation of a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria, which would encourage Turkey’s PKK party to renew its quest for autonomy.
The war against Islamic State, meanwhile, is far from over. Though it was Russian firepower that turned the tide and saved President Bashar Assad’s regime from defeat in the civil war, recent political and military developments have shown that Russia can no longer guarantee the regime’s stability. Nevertheless, Putin knows that he must keep on bolstering Assad, a man responsible for the death of half a million of his own people, and guilty of heinous war crimes such as using chemical weapons, in the dwindling hope of achieving an elusive political solution.
It must be remembered that it was President Barack Obama’s stated intent to disengage from the Middle East, and his refusal to arm and train opposition forces in the first stage of the Syrian civil war that created the political vacuum which drew in other powers. Obama, bent on negotiating a nuclear deal with Tehran, turned a blind eye to Iran’s encroachments in Syria and even reneged on his pledge to intervene should Assad use chemical weapons.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had been absent from the Middle East, and Putin seized the opportunity to make a comeback. Though he had significant successes, such as setting up air and naval bases, he may live to rue the day. He will be hard-pressed to boast of a victory in time for the March 18 Russian presidential election.
Successive efforts to draft the map of a new Syria have failed dismally. The Astana forum, convened with Turkey and Iran, aimed at bringing together Assad and opposition forces as well as acknowledging the hegemony of the convening powers. It was a transparent effort to sideline the U.N., which had initiated the so-called Geneva process based on Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015. Despite opposition forces’ unhappiness with Turkish and Iranian involvement, an agreement was reached, and four de-escalation zones were established where no military operations would be permitted and civilian populations could return.
Opposition forces soon complained that Russian and Syrian forces, as well as Turkish troops, were blatantly violating the agreement, and they withdrew from the deal. In December 2017, at a new Astana meeting, Russia concluded that that track was dead and convened a “Congress of the Syrian People” in Sochi. Held from Jan. 29-30, it was another failure. There was no representation of Sunni opposition groups among the 1,600 participants allegedly representing all political forces; nor were there Kurds present since Turkey had launched an attack of their stronghold of Afrin.
Russia, which had allied itself with the Kurds as long as they were assisting Russian-Iranian-Turkish efforts in the fight against Islamic State, made no move to help. Sochi turned into a farce when opposition groups backed by Turkey, offended by huge posters glorifying Assad, refused to leave the airport and returned to Syria. Only Assad’s supporters remained. Unwilling to admit that he found himself bereft of options, Putin invited Turkey and Iran to a tripartite meeting on a still unspecified date to decide “on their next steps.”
Meanwhile, Putin would be hard-pressed to make good on the promise to bring back most of his troops that he made last December on a visit to his Syrian Khmeimim air base. Not only is there no political deal in sight, but the military situation is degrading quickly. Rebel forces are still holding Idlib and Ghouta, though Russian and Syrian planes ceaselessly bomb civilian areas, at times using chemical weapons such as chlorine gas. Syrian ground forces, backed by their Hezbollah allies and by Iranian militias, are not progressing. An attempt by Syrian troops to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces—comprised mainly of fighters from the YPG Kurdish militias—in the Deir ez-Zor area was met with a strong response. Planes of the American-led coalition killed at least 100 soldiers.
Rebel opposition forces show no sign of weakening. In the last few weeks, they have downed a Russian Sukhoi plane and have sent drones to bomb the two Russian bases. The drones were shot down, but the battle is far from over. In northern Syria the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by America, has defeated Islamic State and now controls some 30,000 square kilometers from the Turkish to Iraqi borders. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated on Jan. 17 that there was no plan to end the American presence there and to return the area to the central Syrian government until a stable regime is formed.
With no clear political or military solution in sight, Russia has no choice but to continue backing Assad and keeping significant forces in Syria. It can neither drive Iran out of Syria nor stop Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds. Russian planes helping Assad in his wholesale slaughter of fighters and civilians are fostering a deep-seated hatred that may trigger guerrilla operations against Russian troops, leading to growing dissatisfaction in Russia.
And now, there is the added threat of a full-blown confrontation between Israel and Iran through its Syrian proxy.
Zvi Mazel, the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Romania and Sweden, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.