Frequent misconceptions surround the Russian role in the Middle East, and particularly its role in Syria. Many Syrians claim to see Russia attacking Israel or delivering to the Syrian government all its advanced weapons, technology and modern jets so these can be used against Israel, against Israel’s continuous violation of its air space and invasion of its sovereignty. Actually, Syrians would like to see Russia bombing Israel or taking sides in the Iran (plus allies) – Israel conflict, and delivering the advanced anti-air missiles S-300 or even S-400 to Syria. Until today, all those with anti-Israeli feeling find Russia’s role (in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular) hard to understand. This goes for the nature of its relationship with Israel too, and even the US. We see accusations of “betrayal” launched against Russia and President Vladimir Putin
The time has come to shed some helpful light on the Russian role in the Middle East and look at the recent history of its involvement in the Levant.
Russia in Syria:
Until July 2015, Russia was providing weapons and spare parts to the Syrian Army. Many ships landed in the Syrian Mediterranean, where Russia maintained a naval base from the 1970s. Iran contributed generously to the payment of these shipments and Russia offered weapons at very low cost (half free and the other half paid), aware of its ally’s needs to face the Salafi Wahhabi Takferee in the Levant.
Actually, Russia believed, if the worse came to the worse, the Takferee of al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (ISIS) would never be able to control Lattakia where the Russia naval base is situated, and that the central government of Damascus would be able to secure the capital, Homs and Hama, Zabadani and Lattakia provinces along with its (temporarily) allies in the “Axis of the Resistance”.
In July 2015 Iran and its allies decided to retreat from all rural areas into the main Syrian cities due to the impossibility of protecting the immense territories controlled by Jihadists. This is when Iran sent its special envoy in Syria, the head of the IRGC-Quds Brigade General Qassem Soleimani, to Moscow, who later was followed by Admiral Ali Shamkhani, to lay out the military situation and clarify the difficulties faced on the ground. Soleimani met more than once with the highest Russian authorities and explained that it may be too late to protect all of Lattakia from the jihadist rockets and missiles, and that the Russian base and warm water presence would definitely be in danger.
Iran and its allies were able to protect the capital Damascus, the road from the airport, the surrounding area of Sayyeda Zeinab, the borders between Lebanon and Syria from Talkalakh to Zabadani and Tartous. These kept a status quo for the central government and for the “Axis of the Resistance” to keep the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in place and the military support flowing from the airport and the Syrian harbour into Lebanon.
After long hesitation, Russia took the decision to send its Air Force to Syria in September 2015. Putin was not enthusiastic about declaring animosity to the US in what it had operationally designated as its own playground, the Middle East. The US had invested billions of dollars from its own and Saudi-Qatar’s money in Syria’s “regime change”.
US Special Forces and the CIA were running training programmes in Jordan, Qatar and Turkey for the same purpose. The UK invested, along with the US, tens of millions to train jihadists in fake propaganda and social media intelligence to attract the world’s public opinion in favour of “regime change” and portray a harsh camouflaged reality: “Even if we offer help to the jihadists of al-Qaeda, they are the lesser evil and Bashar al-Assad must be removed”. There was no strategy or plan to deal with an eventual failed state. The world went along with this theory and mainstream media played its “dirty share”, drifting away from the essence of its duty and function to inform people about reality rather than take part in the conflict. The whole world was a victim of this biased mainstream media coverage based on an absence of reliable sources. The American doctrine and strategy of using regime change to “promote” peace is clearly counter-productive, and in fact promotes only one thing: American hegemony.
Putin didn’t feel ready to plunge into the Syrian quagmire. Too many countries were involved and the shadow of Afghanistan was still haunting the Russian leadership. However, the “unintended consequences” of the US policy towards Ukraine and its attempt, along with the European Community, to kick Russia out of the country and disrupt its huge economic income from gas selling into Europe was enough to make the Russian bear dive into the Levant.
Putin allocated more or less the existing Ministry of Defence yearly budget for training and weapons development to be invested in Syria. He seized the golden opportunity to move his chess game to make the US to understand that Russia is no longer weak and is capable of protecting its interests outside its territory or comfort zone. The Russian message to the US was clear: if you want to play in our Ukrainian garden Moscow will play in your Middle Eastern forest.
Russia moved to Syria not to win a war but to halt it, to prevent jihadists from having the upper hand and to protect its interests and those of its allies. Russia wanted to eliminate all Caucasian jihadists who joined ISIS and al-Qaeda to prevent these from travelling back home (or recruiting similar back home). It also wanted three more things: to ensure a long-term presence for its naval Mediterranean base in Tartous, for all parties to come to the political negotiation table, and for the US to stop the “regime change” goal. Russia also has in mind to exploit the very rich Syrian oil and gas and protect its gas supply line to Europe.
For Russia – unlike Iran – Assad was not an essential character to protect: it was the stability of the Syrian government that was paramount. Russia was ready to compromise (though Iran was totally against the removal of Assad and refused any compromise on this point) and ask Assad to go and choose another Alawite if that was the price of stopping the war. Moscow’s objective was not to defeat Washington on all grounds in Syria and there was therefore room for compromise and negotiation. Putin was apparently trying to imitate what Yasser Arafat said once: I hold the olive branch in one hand and the Ak-47 in another.
Moscow wanted the diplomacy channel to remain open with the Americans and was ready to play a “soft power” game but not to the point of alienating the US establishment. It was only when Turkey shot down a Russian jet at the end of 2015 that Russia understood how far the US was ready to go to face down Russia and bring its reputation to the ground. Putin refused to fall into the same US trap Leonid Brezhnev fell into when he sent the Soviet Army to Afghanistan in 1979.
This is when Putin ordered a harsh punitive financial (but not military) expedition against a NATO member, Turkey, knowing President Recep Tayib Erdogan was not alone in this challenge. What had happened that day was clear: it took 16 seconds for the Turkish Air Defence to fire at the Russian Sukhoi and shoot it down when the pilot approached the virtual borders between Syria and Turkey while bombing pro-Turkish jihadists in Kessab. Indeed, that was a very short time for the air defence high ranking officer base to go through the channels of authority, inform the head of the Turkish Air Force or the operational room at the Turkish MOD, then to the Chief of Staff, to the defence Minister and to President Erdogan. Turkey was waiting for the Russian jet with a finger on the trigger. Russia normally informs the Americans of all daily plans as part of the de-confliction agreement to avoid sky incidents since both Russia and the US operate in the same Syrian air space.
Russia re-established its commercial ties with Turkey after several months of interruption, when it was suitable for Russia and convenient for Erdogan who felt the US possible involvement in – or at least knowledge of – the coup d’état against him. This is when the American diplomacy moved in very fast.US Secretary of State John Kerry managed after months of negotiation to extract a deal with his Russia counterpart Sergei Lavrov to create demarcation lines between cities, keep a status quo on all fronts and ground the Syrian Air Force. All militants would keep control of territories they controlled. The same would have been valid for the Syrian Army. Russia would have been satisfied to halt the war as it was then.
Iran and Syria’s objectives were not identical to the Russians’ but met in many points. Tehran and Damascus were determined to liberate the entire Syrian territory. They were happy to see a superpower – Russia – stepping in Syria and facing another superpower, the US.
Iran could not handle the situation alone or even with its allies. The financial support, military training and hardware jihadists were receiving required the Iranian army to be involved. That was a possibility Tehran did explore if ever Russia refused to jump into the Syrian swamp. The cost would have been very high, much worse than the Iran-Iraq war. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates would have sent also troops to Syria, Qatar would have contributed financially, and a larger Middle Eastern war would have knocked at the Levant doors where Israel and the US would have gladly taken part in the show against Syria and Iran.
For Iran, the fall of Bashar al-Assad meant the fall of Iran itself and its Hezbollah strategic ally, and with it Iraq afterwards. Tehran was ready to gamble everything- and still is – to date. That was not Russia’s case. Russia‘s strategy is to keep a Syrian government in place and stop jihadists from having the upper hand at all cost.
It was only when the Pentagon disagreed with Kerry to go along with Russia and halt the war in Syria that Moscow decided to continue fighting and liberate Aleppo. Russia knows that its air force can do very little without a solid, well trained and motivated ground force to recover territory. Jihadists learned how to protect themselves from air attacks when barricaded in cities. This is where Hezbollah and the Elite Syrian Tiger forces came in, along with other competent Syrian army troops. Russia understood it was not alone in the war and logically could not have the ultimate decision in everything.
Iran, with no Russian support, moved towards al-Badiyah (the Syrian Steppe) and continued towards al-Tanf and then albu Kamal. Iran’s forces waited for the elite Tiger forces for 3 weeks to finish off the Deir-ezzour battle with ISIS. When Soleimani became impatient, he ordered the assault on ISIS in albu Kamal. Seeing how determined Iran and its allies are, the Russian Air Force decided to give a hand to Iran’s ground forces after the beginning of the removal of ISIS from Deir-ezzour province.
Russia also didn’t agree with Iran and its allies to liberate Beit Jinn and Mazraat Beit Jin (on the borders with the 1974 ceasefire line) and to free Daraa and Quneitra. Russia made a deal with the US and the Israelis to keep away from the sensitive border area to make sure Israel wouldn’t be directly hit by the Russian forces in Syria. Already removing the Jihadist Takferee and shortening the years of war in Syria was a disadvantage to Israel. Tel Aviv offered logistics, medical, and intelligence help together with its Air Force and artillery scandalously in favour of al-Qaeda and ISIS supporters (Jaish Khaled Bin al-waleed) on its borders with Syria. Halting the war in the south was also to the advantage of the Syrian army: most forces were shifted towards the north.
In fact Russia and Israel largely enjoy a good relationship regardless of their differences in Syria. Israel is desperately in need of Russia due to its presence in Syria. Russia can hold back for a while Tehran and Damascus’s objectives in Syria and set some limits until the war ends. The absence of Russia in the Levant would mean tens of thousands of Iranian allies on the borders with Israel. However, Russia can also deliver game changing weapons to Syria,
Already Israel is very unhappy about the Russian delivery of the anti-ship missile (Yakhont) to Syria. Israel is aware that the Russian stock of anti-tank laser guided missiles “Kornet” found its way to Hezbollah in 2006 and halted the Israeli Merkava during the second war (over 55 tanks were destroyed and damaged). Yakhont is believed to have found its way into Hezbollah’s hands.
Russia is not going completely against Israel’s need for security even though it is still substantially helping Syria. But this is conditional: if Israel plays with fire in Syria and continues firing missiles close to the Russian officers distributed with all its allies all over the Syrian territory this could change, and Israel knows that.
Iran again, like the central government in Damascus, didn’t agreed with all Russian military and political plans but understood that only Moscow had the international leverage to halt the war so that ISIS and al-Qaeda could be eliminated. The US support for al-Qaeda (along with that of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) was a real dilemma for the Syrian forces and their allies since they were a priority to eliminate. When Russia moved in and decided to eliminate the terrorist group, ISIS was orphan and helpless. Syria and Iran agreed later to move towards a political agreement where the remaining rebels were left alone, under Turkey’s control in the north.
Russia’s behaviour shows that it didn’t come to Syria to start a third World War. It exerted restraint when Turkey shot down its jet, when the US killed dozens of Russia contractors in Deir-ezzour, when the US launched the first wave of 59 cruise missiles above Russia’s head against the Shuay’raat military airport and when the Pentagon softened Trump’s response by launching the second wave, a few months later, of 100 cruise missiles against empty Syrian targets (after informing Russia of the exact time of the strike and the bank of objectives).
Russia has no intention of taking part in the war between Israel and Hezbollah or Israel and Iran. Russia was in fact aiming to calm down the tension so that it could promote the end of the war in Syria. Russia is not part of the Iranian-Israeli conflict. There is no point in defining the Iranian-Israeli conflict as the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, the enmity between Muslims and Israelis in the Middle East is today reduced to Iran and its allies versus Israel. Saudi Arabia (Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and Saudi media) is overtly flirting with Israel, lifting all taboos and exchanging official visits.
Israel and Russia have good ties, yet their relationship is largely misunderstood by many analysts. It is not accurate to say Putin has invited Netanyahu to “Victory Day” to “send a message to Syria”. Both Damascus and Tehran are aware of the nature of the relationship between Moscow and Tel Aviv, and vice versa.
Neither Iran nor Syria will accept any Russian or Israeli ultimatum. Russia would not have achieved anything in Syria without Iranian allies and their ground troops and the reverse is also true.
Iran and Syria understand the Russian-Israeli link and do not pretend to try to breach it. Also, Russia is aware of the Syrian-Iranian relationship and has failed repeatedly to alter it. Russia also needs both Syria and Iran as leaders in the forefront of the anti-US unilateral world dominance campaign, not just as partners in commerce and energy.
What Russia managed to do in Syria? Some of its achievements:
- Russia prevented President Obama from bombing Damascus and convinced the US to accept the destruction of Syria’s chemical bombs. For Syria, following Hezbollah’s experience in 2006, having precision missiles is more than enough to create a balance with Israel. Using chemical weapon brings world anger against any user.
- Russia (along with China) prevented the United Nations, the US and Europe to have the legitimate UN resolution to create a failed state in Syria, similar to the one in Libya in 2011.
- Russia continued supplying the Syrian Army with all military spare parts, tanks and jets updated when the Army was divided (and so were all immense warehouses spread around the country) between pro-rebels and pro-regime.
- Russia moved in with its Air Force and stopped the advance of Jihadists under the mockery of analysts who undermined its intervention in the first six months.
- Russia prevented jihadists from taking control of all rural areas when Iran and its allies were able to defend and keep main cities only.
- Russia liberated Kessab and rural Lattakia when Turkey offered support to al-Qaeda by allowing these to use its territory and attacked the Syrian Army from behind. A direct threat was present against Lattakia: al-Qaeda reached the Mediterranean.
- Russia prevented the US from completely destroying the Syrian Army infrastructure, from demolishing the Presidential palace (a symbolic hit for the fall of the regime), and exerted pressure over the US to limit the cruise missiles’ hit to the Shyayraat military airport.
- Russia created de-escalation zones, dividing rebels and jihadists and allowed the Syrian Army and its allies to isolate hostile areas and recover one at the time.
- Russia made a deal with Turkey (who asked thousands of its proxies to leave Aleppo before the assault) and permitted the liberation of Aleppo.
- Russia stopped the attack in rural Idlib to turn immediately towards al-Ghouta and prevented the possible fall of Damascus. The US was planning to push tens of thousands of rebels from al-Tanf towards al-Ghouta to join another ten thousand jihadists in Ghouta and march towards Damascus. This was the only plan capable of turning things upside down on Russia and its allies when the war was almost won- had it succeeded. Russia hit 20-30,000 militants of Jaish al-Islam so hard forcing these to leave Ghouta, rural Homs and rural Hama to be dislodged in the Turkish controlled area up north.
- Russia prevented the US from hitting all Syrian Army positions, the Iranian military bases and the one of its allies (preventing a large war against Israel that could have spilled over the entire Middle East). The US was forced to change its plan of war twice and, due to the Pentagon’s pressure, agreed to inform Russia of all objectives and to limit the hit to 100 cruise missiles against empty targets. Russia deployed all air defence systems (delivered 40 anti-air cannon missiles Pantsir-S2 to Syria) in a position capable of hunting down incoming missiles, and ridiculed the US hit.
- Russia created Astana talks, an alternative to the Geneva talks, and created its own political mediation platform. Today, following the liberation of Ghouta and rural Hama and Homs, no rebel group remains for the Syrian government to negotiate with at Geneva. The anti-Syrian government players were disarmed and under the control of their masters. Today, the peace talk negotiation is concentrated through countries rather than proxies: the US in the north-east and east (al-Tanf), Turkey in the north-west and US/Israel in the south and Russia, with Iran and Syria on the other side.
- Russia spoke harshly with Israel when its jets bombed the T-4 military airport. Putin told Netanyahu that his missiles reached within 50 meters from the Russian position at the T-4 and that was unacceptable. The agreement was that Israel refrain from hitting inland any force engaged in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda. Russia threatened the S-300 possible delivery to Syria if ever Israeli jets committed such an uncoordinated, unauthorised attack in Syria.
- Israel informed Russia of its presence in the air with 28 jets to bomb Syrian and Iranian positions. Russia tipped-off its allies of the course of the Israeli jets and their objectives. Casualties were limited to a few Syrian servicemen were killed: there were no Iranian casualties. Syria and Iran responded by creating a new Rule Of Engagement and introduced the occupied Golan Heights as a future tit-for-tat arena.
Russia is no longer compromising on Assad: Moscow no longer aim for the removal of the Syrian president but supports a free Syrian election with UN monitoring in 2019. Russia is also fully aware that the Iranian-Syrian relationship is much more solid and strategic after seven years of war. Destiny, geography, the common enemy, strategic allies (Hezbollah)- all merged into one destiny and one objective: to protect the Syrian regime that considers Iran as its most loyal partner. Syria opened its warehouses to Hezbollah in 2006 and Hezbollah came to Syria and offered thousands of men to protect the “Axis of the Resistance”.
Also, The IRGC are in Syria since 1982 and won’t leave unless requested to do so by the Syrian government. The IRGC came to support Assad years before Russia and offered finance, men and weapons with no promises or guarantee of success. Russia came in later and is aware of the dynamic and the relationship between Iran and Syria.
Russia will try, throughout what remains of the time for war in Syria, to keep a balance in its relationship with Israel, Syria, Turkey, the US and Iran. Simultaneously, Russia won’t try to attack the US and accepts to share the same space (in Syria) as long as each force remains in its area (-which is not necessarily Damascus and Tehran’s plan).
What Russia offered to Syria is much more than can be quoted in one article. Nevertheless, the fight is not over and there is still a long way to go. What many forget is that Russia is not an annex to the Syrian or the Iranian army, nor is it part of the “Axis of the Resistance” even if it is not very far from some of their struggles and objectives. However, without the “axis of the Resistance”, Russia itself cannot go very far.
Without Russia, we most probably would have bombs flying about the Middle East between Iran and Israel, and Hezbollah and Israel, and Syria and Iraq – and most probably some Arab countries would have been in flames, particularly with a US president who takes war decisions over a piece of chocolate cake and can’t tell the difference between Iraq and Syria.