Putin is not Israel's savior in the Middle East
03.10.2019, Israel and the World
When Russia first began its involvement in Syria four years ago, the West predicted that Vladimir Putin would find himself sinking in the mud of Syria's civil war, while in Israel they hoped that Moscow would reduce Tehran's influence in its northern neighbor.
None of these predictions came true, however, and Russia, which has become the strongest player in Syria, and from there is now projecting its policies on other areas of the Middle East.
Moscow only made the decision to enter Syria in late 2015, when the growing strength of Islamic State made it too great a threat for Russia to ignore.
Bashar Assad's regime was in jeopardy, the U.S. had failed to stop IS, and a stream of volunteer jihadists from the Caucasus and the Commonwealth of Independent States (of the former Soviet Union) intensified.
A takeover of Syria by Sunni jihadists could have resulted in a massive wave of terrorism in Russia.
Furthermore, Putin viewed coming to Assad's aid as a golden opportunity to crystallize his status both in the Middle East and around the world. Mideast analysts sin Russia claim that the country never left the region, but by 2011, Moscow's influence in the region was extremely limited.
In Syria, Russian generals were able to make the most of the situation: they saved the Assad regime, expanded their presence on Syrian soil and positioned Russia as the only strong force with "boots on the ground."
This vigorous activity was a way for Moscow to thumb its nose at the lack of a clear U.S. strategy and the inability of European countries to put an end to the Syrian civil war.
Along the way, Russia tested many state-of-the-art weapons in Syria, with the Russian army operating in significant numbers outside the nation's borders for the first time since the fall of the USSR.
Today Russia has close ties with all the major players in the region: Assad, Hezbollah and Iran on one hand, but also Ankara, Jerusalem, Beirut and Riyadh on the other. Each of these countries needs Russia to keep playing its game of chess in Syria.
Moscow is already reaping dividends from its victory in Syria, and is now busy cementing its status through arms sales to all sides (such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Abed al-Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt), setting up nuclear power plants (in Egypt, Jordan and Algeria), offering assistance to other shaky regimes (e.g. Sudan), and of course finding new markets for its oil and gas.
Not everyone has all fallen into the arms of the Russian president - the Gulf states and Egypt are still leaning on the U.S. for now. But the lack of a clear American position on many regional issues certainly gives Russia the backbone to achieve its aims. For unlike the U.S., Russia has long-term plans for the Mideast, and they may run contrary Israel's own interests.
In recent years, Israel has succeeded in managing impressive coordination with Russia to prevent collisions in Syria's skies, but this coordination is not a strategic alliance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped that Russia would expel Iran from Syria or he would at least be able drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran. But despite their differences, the Russia-Iran alliance is only growing stronger.
Syria is just the first stop on Russia's long road to the heart of the Middle East. Today, Russian-made S-300 air defense systems cover Syrian and Lebanese territory and Moscow is discussing similar for Iraq. Furthermore, Iran is planning large-scale military maneuvers with the Russian army – and Israel may find itself in a position in which it cannot strike at the heart of its enemies in the region.
Russia plans to rebuild the Syrian army, which will include elements that are considered very hostile to Israel. This could mean the Israel Air Forces finds its hands are tied when it comes to bombing Assad's bases.
"It's nothing personal," Moscow would say, shrugging its shoulders.
There is no denying that Russia is an important country and Israel must continue to cooperate with it. But one must not forget for a moment that at the end of the day, the only country Israel can lean on is the United States - its sole true strategic ally.
By Ksenia Svetlova