Russia in the driver’s seat

It seems that Iran, Israel’s most dangerous enemy, is pushing hard against Israel’s red lines in Syria. Yediot Aharonot military correspondent Alex Fishman writes,

The Iranian regime, it seems, isn’t taking the public warnings issued by the Israeli defense establishment heads seriously and is hectically pursuing its talks with the Syrian regime, as well as patrols in search of a military airport near Damascus which would serve as a base for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ combat squadrons.

At the same time, the Iranians and the Syrians are making progress in the talks for an autonomic Iranian military pier in the Tartus port and the creation of an Iranian division on Syrian soil.

Israel, however, has made it clear both to the Iranians and the Syrians, as well as to the Russians, that it will not allow any Iranian presence in Syria, especially war planes or an Iranian pier in the Tartus port.

Apparently Israel is more pro-active in Syria than is publicly known, possibly aiding anti-Assad rebels in some areas. So far Russia hasn’t interfered with Israeli activities, which have been focused primarily on interdicting shipments of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But if Russia agrees to an Iranian request for a base, then any action to prevent it that Israel takes will be in direct opposition to Russia.

Israel is reported to have appealed to the US and Russia to prevent things from getting out of control. But even if President Trump were highly competent in these very complicated issues (which he is not), it is unclear who exactly is guiding America’s defense and foreign policy in the region at any particular moment. Elements in the State Department and CIA still defend the Obama-era policy of engagement with (read: appeasement of) Iran.

In addition, the administration is wary of further involvement in the Middle East and concerned with domestic issues and North Korea. The US may not have sufficient military assets in the region. Finally, there is the specter of legal action against the President by his political opponents tying up his ability to act.

In short, Israeli planners can’t count on the US if things here blow up.

This places the ball in the Russian court, which is exactly where Putin wants it. In the words of Ha’aretz military analyst Amos Harel, “if there is one thing that characterizes Russian policy, it is its utter cynicism.” Russia will not hesitate to sacrifice any other nation or group on the altar of her interests. Today she, not the US, is the arbiter of outcomes in the Middle East. And she has decided to be very interested in our region.

Dr. Dmitry Adamski of IDC Herzliya has published some very alarming speculations about how a Hezbollah-Israel war could benefit Russia, and how Russia might intervene:

If conflict breaks out between Israel and Hezbollah, Moscow would probably let Hezbollah and Iran bleed in order to weaken their regional positions. But it would also seek to prevent a total Israeli victory, since it still needs Hezbollah as a strategic actor in the region, and because doing so could demonstrate to Israel the limits of its power. By settling the conflict and restoring the status quo ante bellum, Russia could validate that it matches or exceeds the United States as a force in the Middle East. …

If Moscow cannot broker a political end to the conflict, it could try to coerce both sides to end the fighting on their own. Driven by a desire to generate maximum benefits with minimum friction, Moscow could carry out limited cyber operations against civilian targets in Israel, such as ports or oil refineries. Such assaults would seem less escalatory and would be easier to carry out than attacks against military infrastructure, and Russia could attribute them to Iran or Hezbollah to benefit from plausible deniability and to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel. Moscow could then signal that unless Israel scales back its assault on Hezbollah, it could hit another “red button”—a previously implanted digital vulnerability within Israel’s critical infrastructure that is ready to be exploited in a moment of need. Finally, to undermine the cohesion of the Israeli public, it could spread misinformation or expose real secrets to set off a public scandal.

On the battlefield, meanwhile, Russia could try to make Israeli planners think that Russian personnel are stationed so close to Hezbollah that a strike on one would endanger both. If that fails, Moscow could threaten to deploy anti-access/area-denial bubbles to prevent Israeli forces from striking Hezbollah targets in Syria and Lebanon. At the next level of escalation, it could electronically sabotage Israeli precision strikes or jam or shoot down Israeli drones. If Israel still does not respond, Moscow could carry out cyber-sabotage against its Iron Dome missile-defense battery, interfere with its air-raid sirens or social-media early-warning systems, and accompany those steps with an information campaign about the vulnerability of Israel’s civil defense aimed at causing panic among the public.

Given the predictions that Hezbollah will launch hundreds or thousands of short-range rockets and longer-range missiles each day, and considering that the war will probably include a southern front with Hamas as well, a simultaneous cyberattack from Russia could worsen our position and greatly increase home front casualties.

The best situation for Israel would be for Hezbollah to be disarmed peacefully. This would require regime change in Iran, which doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. The next best would be a preemptive Israeli attack and a quick, complete victory. This, too, seems unlikely if Adamski is correct about Russian thinking (it’s ironic for Russia to take over the former role of the US in preventing Israel from winning its wars decisively).

PM Netanyahu has met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin several times, ostensibly to work out details of arrangements to prevent interference between IDF and Russian operations in Syrian airspace. But certainly they have discussed Iranian ambitions. I’m sure Putin is wary of a too-powerful Iran close to its southern border; Moscow is already in range of Iranian rockets, and Islamic terrorism is a serious threat to Russia.

Russia wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria in order to guarantee Russian access to bases on the Syrian coast. Iran’s Hezbollah proxy is providing the manpower to support Assad, both against ISIS and against various groups of Sunni rebels that have American, Saudi, Qatari, Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish connections. Russia needs Hezbollah, and therefore she needs Iran.

Israel does not appear to have a strong bargaining position. Russia will make demands and offer benefits – like keeping Iranian troops away from our borders – in return. For example, we are already refraining from taking a position on the Ukrainian conflict to keep Russia happy. I am sure that we will be forced to balance how far we can go in Russia’s direction against maintaining our relationship with her historic antagonist, the US. It will be crucial for Israel to find some form of leverage – something we can offer to Putin or threaten him with – that can be used to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran.

Feeding the Iranian monster is dangerous, especially after it was enriched by receiving a $100 billion bonus for signing the nuclear deal. The Russians know this and at some point will have to rein it in. But will they do it before or after the next Mideast war?

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One Response to Russia in the driver’s seat

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    The latest alarming development is the Iranian involvement in the Kurdish retreat in Kirukuk and surrounding areas. Iran is expanding its power and the Trump Administration is talking a better game but so far as can be seen on the ground doing nothing.
    What part the Russians have in this I do not know. It appears that this is not in their sphere of interest at the moment.
    But clearly their overall approach is as you have described and they cannot be trusted.

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