Daily Briefing: IS SYRIA NO LONGER A CENTRAL THREAT  TO ISRAEL’S SECURITY?(September 10,2020)

Bashar Hafez al-Assad, aka Bashar al-Assad, is the President of Syria. (Wikipedia)

Table of Contents:

Syria: The Decline of the Last Conventional Threat: Avi Jager, BESA, Aug. 25, 2020
Russia Makes Moves in Syria and Cyprus – Analysis:  Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post, Sept. 8, 2020
Five Years after Russia Intervened In Syria, is an End to Conflict At Hand?: William Gourlay, Shahram Akbarzadeh and Zahid Shahab Ahmed, The Strategist, Sept. 3, 2020
The Family Scars Left by the Beirut Blast:  Dion Nissenbaum, WSJ, Sept. 3, 2020

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Syria: The Decline of the Last Conventional Threat
Avi Jager
BESA, Aug. 25, 2020

Over the years, Israel has considered a conventional war with Syria a likely scenario. Unlike Jordan and Egypt, Syria never signed a peace agreement with Israel, nor has it established any diplomatic or economic relations. Syria directly confronted Israel in 1948, 1967, 1973, and 1982, and continued to require mass conscription.

In 2011, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimated Syria’s military standing at 295,000 soldiers (220,000 infantry, artillery, and armored; 5,000 navy; 30,000 air force; and 40,000 air defense) and its reserve military at 314,000 soldiers (280,000 infantry, artillery, and armored; 4,000 navy; 10,000 air force; and 20,000 air defense).

The unit that stood out in the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) was air defense. Syria’s air defense unit included 25 air defense brigades and more than 4,700 surface-to-air missile systems, which constituted 14% of the SAF’s standing military forces. Syria’s artillery capabilities were also well developed, with more than 3,440 artillery pieces spread across numerous firing positions throughout the country. Syrian missiles covered Israel’s entire territory. Cumulatively, prior to 2011, the SAF was capable of deploying more than half a million soldiers in a military campaign.

Another source of concern for Israel was Syria’s WMD program. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Syria obtained the necessary technology as long ago as 1986 to produce nerve agents such as sarin gas. Indeed, in a 2002 CIA report, the agency confirmed that Damascus had acquired a substantial stockpile of sarin. Other intelligence reports indicated that Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal included VX and mustard gas, and that it had the means to assemble chemical warheads on top of long-range ballistic missiles.

The most ambitious WMD initiative ever undertaken by Syria was its development of a nuclear program. That program was brought to an end in 2007, when Israeli fighter jets dropped 17 tons of explosives onto the reactor, destroying it completely. From that point onward, things have gone south for the Syrian regime.

In 2011, Syria became mired in a bloody civil war that quickly deteriorated into a morass of sectarian division and foreign intervention. In July of that year, Sunni defectors from the SAF established the Free Syrian Army, which called for the overthrow of the ruling Syrian regime. Local Sunni militias started cooperating with each other while foreign jihadist groups, including ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Jabhat al-Nusra, penetrated the country’s vulnerable borders.

Against all expectations, the Syrian regime managed to survive due to massive Iranian and Russian support, but the war took a high toll on the SAF. From a potential pool of 500,000 soldiers in the SAF ground forces in 2011, only 90,000 soldiers remained active following the conflict and able to serve in the SAF infantry, artillery, and armored corps. The Syrian Air Force lost more than 60% of its combat aircraft fleet and is estimated to possess only 150–200 aircraft today. The Syrian armored corps also suffered heavy losses during the civil war; approximately 2,000 Syrian tanks were reported either destroyed or unusable at the war’s peak. Reports of Syria’s artillery capabilities at that point indicate that over 40% of the SAF’s field artillery pieces were demolished or damaged as well. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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Russia Makes Moves in Syria and Cyprus – Analysis
Seth J. Frantzman
Jerusalem Post, Sept. 8, 2020

Russia has been doing the usual victory lap of diplomatic meetings that make it seem like it is succeeding in the northern part of the Middle East, while the US under Mike Pompeo’s diplomacy has succeeded in the southern part and Israel. In the center lies Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, which recently had a high level meeting.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went to Damascus to meet Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad. Russia brought along Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov to show its commitment. Meanwhile Turkey’s leader was about to have a video conference with Iran’s leader. Russia knows this and has also hosted eastern Syrian Kurdish politicians recently. The Russian message is clear. It can play a key role in Syria, as it has been doing, and it wants stability there.

Syria’s regime wants Russian investment. This could include money for energy, mining and power projects. Syria has been gutted by a decade of war, hundreds of thousands dead and 10 million displaced. The conflict continues in northern Syria, which is now occupied by Turkey. The regime would like the US to leave eastern Syria as well. It’s not clear if the several hundred US troops will leave soon.

The Syrian regime is at an economic breaking point due to the Caesar act in the US which puts harsher sanctions in place. But the regime has nowhere to go, so all it can do is gut the country more. Of course, the goal of the regime is to hang on with some help from Russia, Iran and maybe even China. But its neighbor Lebanon also needs $93 billion to be bailed out. Syria is an economic wasteland. Eastern Syria, where the US has influence, is also cut off. Turkey, despite stories to the UN about a $20b. investment in its occupied zone, has been robbing Syria of agriculture but doing little to help.

The end result then for Assad is to try to figure out which country will buy up the country, the Russians or Iranians. Iran wants to be part of China’s new silk road of economic success and is holding discussions with India and Turkey. Maybe Iran can help Assad thread the economic needle if Russia doesn’t bring enough investment.

Russia is also launching an initiative to encourage Cyprus and Northern Cyprus to hold talks. Northern Cyprus, like Afrin and areas in Syria, is occupied by Turkey since the 1970s but is treated as an independent country by Ankara. Lavrov suggested talks now after Turkey held military drills with Northern Cyprus. This comes as the US and France are angling for arms and defense deals and agreements with Cyprus, which is part of the EU.

What is Lavrov’s point of raising the Cyprus issue now. He speaks of negotiations and a solution to the decades long division of the island. He got quite specific in comments, with differing versions in Greek and Turkish media. Greek media alludes to Turkish plans about opening up an abandoned area near Famagusta. Russia wants a comprehensive, lasting, “just and viable solution.” That sounds like language usually used for Israel and the Palestinians.

It appears Russia is in Cyprus partly relating to signing agreements but also because the US has ended an arms embargo and Russia may be concerned about Cyprus becoming too close to Washington. Russia claims to want to reduce tensions in the eastern Mediterranean that have pitted an aggressive Turkey against Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the EU, France and others. Turkey has also sent arms to Libya and signed a deal designed to take over part of the sea. Israel has a pipeline deal with Cyprus and Greece. Russia would like to play the mediator and thus gain influence.
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Five Years after Russia Intervened in Syria, is an End to Conflict at Hand?
William Gourlay, Shahram Akbarzadeh and Zahid Shahab Ahmed
The Strategist, Sept. 3, 2020

This month marks five years since Russia launched its well-publicised airborne intervention in Syria’s civil war. The first sparks of Syria’s unrest arose from civilian protests against President Bashar al-Assad, but the conflict morphed into a war of proxies. It soon grew more complicated, with a confounding array of factions and militias in competition across the country.

Before September 2015, Russia had remained coy about its involvement in the conflict. In launching its air campaign, Moscow initially claimed to be targeting Islamic State, but it soon became clear that it was stepping up to support its main ally in the Middle East, Assad.

Russia’s intervention marked several significant shifts. First, it meant that Moscow replaced Tehran as Assad’s most important external backer. Russia’s intervention also meant it had control of the skies, definitively bringing an end to international discussions about a no-fly zone. In the muddied conflict that the Syrian war had become, this, in turn, turned the tide in favour of the Assad regime. The conflict had earlier ground to a stalemate, but once Russia swung decisively behind Assad the momentum shifted against opposition forces.

Indeed, external backing has been crucial to the survival of the Assad regime. Lacking any support in the Arab world, it has had to turn to historical allies Iran and Russia. Short on manpower and resources, and corrupt, brutal and intransigent in its dealings with its own population, the Syrian government has little scope for ending the conflict, through either military victory or negotiation with opposition groups, without outside involvement.

At the same time, Syria remains an important element in Russia’s broader geopolitical strategy. The naval installation at Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, is the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean base and Moscow’s key mechanism of power projection in the region. In 2017, Moscow secured an agreement from Damascus to maintain its presence there for 49 years. The nearby Khmeimim airbase, built in mid-2015, from which Russia launches its air campaigns, further cements Russia in the Syrian landscape. Shoring up Assad’s position has allowed Moscow to protect—and extend—its own interests.
 
A senior Syrian opposition figure with whom we spoke remarked that the Russians were ‘just using the regime as an excuse whenever it was convenient for them’. Following its participation in negotiations over a ceasefire and evacuations that saw the major northern city of Aleppo reclaimed by the Assad regime in late 2016, Russia ‘calls the shots’ in Syria, this opposition figure argues. He recalled that no Syrian government delegates were present at the negotiations, only opposition members and Russian officials. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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The Family Scars Left by the Beirut Blast
Dion Nissenbaum
WSJ, Sept. 3, 2020

I trace the arc of the scar on my shoulder with a finger and wonder what created the U-shaped gash. I obsessively watch videos of the Beirut blast and try to figure out how it engulfed us in shattered glass, splintered wood and jagged stone. Sometimes, I still feel the energy of the shock wave radiating off my back.

Thick shards of flying glass left my 4-year-old daughter, Iman, with still-tender scars that she will live with for the rest of her life. The ferocious Aug. 4 explosion, which killed more than 180 people and wounded 6,000 in 10 seconds, is forever imprinted on our bodies.

Our apartment was ravaged, our lives upended. Now, as the world’s attention shifts elsewhere, my wife and I have to decide how to move on. Should we stay in Beirut, where I have been reporting for the Journal for less than a year, or turn the page on our life in Lebanon?

We were among the luckier ones that day. We have friends with far more serious injuries and neighbors who lost relatives in the blast. We have been showered with support, while thousands of others in Beirut will never be able to return to their normal lives.

We eagerly moved last fall to Beirut after three years in Washington. We loved taking our daughter to see the pandas in the National Zoo, ride the carousel on the Mall and take Bollywood dance classes at a community arts center.

But we grew weary of having to schedule time weeks in advance to see friends. We chafed at the competitive charter-school lottery system that pitted parents against each other for coveted slots. And we snickered at people who worried about our safety when they learned we were going to Beirut.

In Washington, we lived on a gentrifying street with $800,000 townhouses and Brooklyn-level rents. It turned out to be the most dangerous place we’d ever lived. In two years, we had four suspected gang shootings right outside our door, including one where semiautomatic gunfire raked our block and shattered the windows next door.

For us, Beirut was something else—a city with friends who would stop by for an impromptu coffee, with neighbors who looked in on each other and dinner conversations that didn’t revolve around the latest Trump tweets.
The biggest threat seemed to be another war between Israel and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force. We kept that in mind when we chose our home, a beautiful old apartment in East Beirut with high ceilings, old chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling balcony doors looking out toward the Beirut port.

The largely Christian and Armenian neighborhood, full of bars and restaurants, was an unlikely target in a war. Israel hit the Beirut port during its 2006 war with Hezbollah, but those missile explosions weren’t likely to do much more than rattle our windows a half-mile away. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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For Further Reference:

Russia Vows to Help Syria “Break Through” Crippling U.S. Sanctions: George Baghdadi, CBS News, Sept. 9, 2020 –– Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov pledged on Monday that his country would help Syria’s government survive crippling U.S. economic sanctions.

Turkish Study Maps Out Iran’s Entrenchment in Syria:  Dean Shmuel Elmas, Israel Hayom, Aug. 9, 2020 — Iran now has a military presence in 10 governorates in Syria that includes no fewer than 125 outposts of its Revolutionary Guards Corps and pro-Iranian militias, the Turkish research institute Jusoor revealed in a study published earlier this month.

The Future of Lebanon Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times chief foreign affairs columnist talks to Chloe Cornish on how the country reached a tipping point, Financial Times, Aug. 13, 2020, Podcast — The Lebanese have survived civil war, decades of rolling blackouts and even managed the influx of 1.5m Syrian refugees, about a quarter of the country’s population.

The Blast in Beirut has Laid Bare the Long-festering Rot in a Beleaguered Nation Robert F. Worth, The Globe and Mail, Aug. 8, 2020 — The explosion that devastated Beirut Tuesday is different from anything Lebanon has faced in its long and tumultuous history. It calls for a different kind of response – from the Lebanese and from the rest of us. It is not just the size of the blast – that terrifying wave of air and fire, captured on countless cellphone cameras, that shot outward from the city’s port and left much of Beirut in ruins.