Who is fighting whom in Syria? Israel watches cautiously from the sidelines

Anyone following the news out of the Middle East nowadays is bound to be confused. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the governments of all the above countries were equally confused.

Let’s just have a look at some recent events and commentary from the last few weeks.

Israel hit a Hezbollah linked facility in Syria near the border with Lebanon:

Targeted storage facilities housed long-range surface-to-surface missiles that Syria had transferred to the Hezbollah terrorist group. A number of Hezbollah fighters and Syrian military soldiers were reportedly killed in Saturday’s strike and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were reportedly among the wounded.

The same report said it was the third Israeli strike in the Qalamoun region over a period of one week. Israel declined to comment on the report.

The news came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia in relation to military operations within Syria during a meeting with Russia’s President Putin on the sidelines of the World Climate Change Conference near Paris.

Days ago, a senior Israeli defense official publicly noted that while Russian jets sometimes breach Israeli airspace, close cooperation ensures that the planes are not inadvertently targeted by the Jewish state.

The implications of this strike are that Israel can hit within Syria with impunity despite the latest Russian anti-aircraft weapons systems. It appears that Putin is allowing Israel to take whatever measures it needs for its self-defence

For these very reasons Israel is seeking to extend cooperation with Russia to include ground-based operations.

I very much doubt that Israel will want to go in on a ground operation, but it’s good to have the possibility available should it become necessary.

As mentioned above Netanyahu and Putin hailed Israeli-Russian coordination – this provoding a useful dig at Erdogan by Putin who is making the most of the Turkish downing of a Russian warplane last month.

Putin is turning the knife further as he claims that Turkey shot down Russian plane to protect their ISIS oil supply:

“And we have every reason to believe that the decision on whether to shoot down our plane was dictated by the desire to ensure the safety of these oil supply routes to Turkish territory.”

Erdogan has called claims that Turkey buys oil from Islamic State “slander.”

No more Mr. Nice Guy. Putin and Erdogan in better days

In fact Turkey has made the exact same counter claim – that Russia is buying oil from ISIS:

Turkey’s president claims he has proof Russia is involved in the illegal oil trade with the Islamic State, as Vladimir Putin vows to never let Ankara forget the downing of his warplane.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised speech today: ‘We have the proof in our hands. We will reveal it to the world.’
Ankara’s accusation comes after Russia accused Erdogan’s family of involvement in the trade with ISIS – part of a black market enterprise which adds millions of dollars to the terrorists’ coffers.

Personally, I think both leaders are right. Without any proof, I still would not be surprised if both sides were buying oil from ISIS.

The complexities of the conflict in Syria are exacerbated by reports that NATO will not be putting “boots on the ground” there.  Added to that there is the much more severe problem of the various groups and factions of anti-Assad rebels engaging in in-fighting amongst themselves. How are Turkey, Russia or the US and its allies supposed to discern who are the good guys and who are the baddies in this scenario?

So what are the commentators and analysts saying about the Russian, Turkish and NATO involvement in Syria?

Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, writing in the Guardian of all places, says that Russia is right: fighting ISIS is the priority for all of us:

There are three conclusions that we can draw when we examine the current situation in the light of those meetings. First, that Russia predicted long ago the rise of Isis and that Moscow sees the organisation as a major strategic threat. Second, that the Russians are right to expect the west to prioritise the battle against Isis, and leave disagreements over other matters until later. Third, although Turkey is a member of Nato, it is not acting in a way that promotes Nato’s interests. Rather, it is dragging the organisation into a skirmish in order to protect Turkish interests – including attacks on the Kurds, who are the only ones actually fighting Isis on the ground, as well as unnecessarily provoking the Russians. According to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Turkey is even providing Isis with financial assistance.

Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil warns that Russia is devouring the Eastern Mediterranean:

Putin has accused Turkey’s leaders of encouraging the Islamization of the Turkish society, which he said was a “problem.” He was not wrong. In fact, Islamism and neo-Ottoman ambitions are the source of Turkey’s (not-so) proxy war with Russia in the Syrian theater. Although Turkey, officially, is a NATO member and part of the allied campaign against IS, its Sunni Islamist ambitions over Syria hinder the global fight against jihadists. A Turco-Russian conflict is weakening the fight.

Putin seems to be making sure that NATO will do nothing.

However, in an opposing view, Con Coughlin warns of Russia’s failed adventure in Syria:

But while the Russians insist that their main attacks in Syria are being directed against fighters associated with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the reality is that they are bombing a large variety of anti-Assad forces – including those backed by the U.S.-led military coalition. One of the explanations given for the Turks shooting down a Russian SU-24 jet was that it had been bombing rebel groups backed by Turkey rather than ISIS, as the Russians later claimed.

L. The Russian warplane shot down by Turkey; R. rebels preparing an anti-tank missile

The lack of progress made in Syria since Mr Putin first authorized Russian military involvement could soon have serious repercussions for the Kremlin.

Public support for the mission in Russia is starting to wane, after Investigators suggested the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula at the end of October, killing all 224 on board, was carried out by ISIS terrorists in retaliation for Moscow’s military campaign.

And then there is the question of just how long Russia can afford to sustain its expensive military adventure in Syria. The Russian economy already has enough difficulties without having to bear the cost of Mr Putin’s latest act of military aggression. Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union: the Syrian conflict could have a similarly catastrophic effect on modern Russia.

And what of the most important angle for us? What are the Lessons for Israel in the confrontation between Russia and Turkey in Syria? Amos Yadlin writes in the Jpost:

Israel can derive a number of tactical and strategic lessons from the confrontation, and in this context, should also underscore that Syria cannot be reunited and the area must be stabilized through a re-demarcation of borders, perhaps within a federative framework.

Second, the already charged relationship between Turkey and Russia has been affected by strategic considerations and political interests relating to the current reality in the Middle East and Europe. The two countries do not see eye to eye regarding the crisis in Syria or the preferable solution. Whereas Turkey has adopted the ultimate goal of Assad’s removal from power, Russia regards Assad’s ongoing rule as a necessary condition for the promotion of stability in the collapsed state and the preservation of its own strategic interests in the Middle East.

On the level of coordination with Russia in light of its military involvement in Syria, Israel must maintain the understandings reached with Russia in October 2015 and consider whether they should now be sharpened, as a lesson based on the incident on the Turkish border. Moreover, the stationing of S-400 missile systems changes the rules of airspace for Israel as well, and requires the establishment of a stringent mechanism to prevent an Israeli-Russian collision. Israel currently has no significant points of friction with Turkey, but must nonetheless derive the right lessons. Turkey has proven that it is not trigger-shy and that it makes good on its threats:

The next question, therefore, concerns the Israeli decision whether or not to choose a side in the current conflict between Turkey and Russia, and, if so, which side to pick. With the exception of attacks attributed to it against high quality weapons transferred from Syria to Hezbollah, Israel is not a central actor in the internal conflict in Syria or among the external parties involved, and is certainly not a party to the current confrontation between Turkey and Russia. However, an assessment of Israeli interests regarding this confrontation reveals a complex situation.

Perhaps Israel’s contradictory interests in the current confrontation between Turkey and Russia can also shed light on what is the most important goal at the moment, for the United States and the European Union as well: the formulation of a strategy that would lead, whether simultaneously or incrementally, to the weakening and removal of the two negative forces operating in Syria – the Assad regime on the one hand and the Islamic State on the other.

One thing seems almost for certain. This civil war isn’t going to end any time soon and no one can decide what the best result should look like. Each good result entails a bad problem attached to it. If ISIS is defeated it could leave Assad in place and Iran empowered. If Assad is deposed and Iran kept away, ISIS will remain a force to be reckoned with.

Israel’s best option is not even to pray for all sides to lose for that might entail the defeat of the allies. It is a very volatile and dangerous situation for the entire region.

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6 Responses to Who is fighting whom in Syria? Israel watches cautiously from the sidelines

  1. Pete says:

    Syria is a growing quagmire and a very dangerous situation.
    Americans HATE ISIS with a passion. Ironically, this has led to the situation where a growing number of Americans like Putin – because he is bombing ISIS and the Russian videos show results. More Americans seem to feel that Washington DC has “lost the plot” in Syria and the policies are muddled or unintelligible. However, Putin is striking directly at terrorist strongholds. Furthermore, more Americans believe that there is no such thing as a “moderate jihadist”. So Putin has gained some acceptance in the USA.
    Americans are very upset with Turkey about the black market operations with ISIS oil. It is quite apparent from the Russian videos (from their drones) that large convoys of ISIS oil tankers exist inside Syria. Clearly these convoys are carrying tremendous quantities of oil. And the Russian videos show clearly that much oil is going through Turkey – without even bring stopped at the border. Many Americans are very upset that a “NATO partner” would run this type of operation. The credibility of Turkey has dropped to the same level as ISIS itself.
    Likewise, people tend to feel that the shooting down of the Russian jet by Turkey was very provocative. Perhaps the jet was in Turkish airspace, but really only for 20 seconds (or less). The normal policy for NATO is to escort foreign planes out of the airspace. Again – Americans are wondering “what else is going on here?”.
    No-one has the slightest idea where all of this is leading. But Syria – and also Turkey – is becoming a very dangerous area of the world.
    Only my personal thoughts.
    Pete, USA

  2. Brian Goldfarb says:

    My sister in North America sent me this article http://www.breakingisraelnews.com/55179/how-russian-jews-helped-shape-life-worlds-most-powerful-leaders-jewish-world/#zHMh2DQLwTs1EHru.97 which argues that Putin is a Judeophile.

    Whether i believe that is another story, but it’s an interesting article.

    Personally, I think (for all that I’m not a fan of his) that Bibi is canny enough to know that he must sup witt Putin with a very long spoon.

    • anneinpt says:

      Thanks for that Brian. I’ve read similar stuff about Putin elsewhere, that he is a Judeophile. It is a very interesting analysis, and probably has at least a grain of truth in it.

      Certainly I agree that Bibi is walking a careful tightrope with Putin. And Israel does have a very large Russian population, many of whom are pro-Putin.

  3. Pete says:

    I was surprised to read here that Israel is allowing Russian aircraft to penetrate its airspace for short periods of time.

    I am guessing this is part of some type of exchange agreement, which also gives Israel the ability to fly missions in Syria. The whole thing is mystifying. Israel would (presumably) be bombing Hezbollah militias. And in the past it has been reported that Israel has bombed Russian weapons that have fallen into the hands of Hezbollah. But we now have Russia and Iran as allies in Syria. And Hezbollah is an ally of Iran. Yet … Russia is allowing Israel to hit targets inside Syria.

    This is, without a doubt, the most confused mess that I have ever seen. With so many different players, and so many advanced weapons, it seems that the possibility for another mishap is high.

    Syria is rapidly becoming the ‘War Of The Nations’.

    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      I agree with you that the Russia/Israel relationship is confused and contradictory to say the least. From what I can gather, as long as Israel leaves Assad and his regime itself alone, and just concentrates on Hezbollah and other elements that directly threaten Israel, Russia will allow Israel to act within the territory it controls. Maybe as a quid pro quo Israel is allowing Russia to overfly it, though why Russia should need Israeli airspace is a bit fo a mystery to me. Maybe it’s just to show Israel that it can. And neither side wants a confrontation with the other. For all its huge size, Russia knows it cannot defeat Israel, and Israel knows that for all its mastery of the skies and its military advantage, it cannot defeat Russia.

      Plus, as Brian above mentions, it has been noted in several places that Putin is a Judeophile. Maybe I wouldn’t go so far, but certainly he doesn’t seem to have the hatred of Jews that his predecessors have.

      So it’s a kind of “respected adversary” situation.

      Either that or we’ve all lost our collective minds.

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