Russia-Iran Strain Raises Possibility of US – Israel – Russia Syria Deal: James Dorsey, Israel Hayom, June 17, 2019
Russia and Iran: Is the Syrian Honeymoon Over?: Udi Dekel, Carmit Valensi, INSS Insight No. 1171, May 27, 2019
Beware an Iranian Ambush in Syria: Udi Dekel, The Times of Israel, June 13, 2019
Can Bolton & His Russian Counterpart Defuse Israeli-Syrian Tensions?: Arie Egozi, Breaking Defense, June 3, 2019
Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced in the latest attacks by Syrian and Russian forces on the northern region of Idlib in Syria. Those forces have not shied away from targeting hospitals and residential areas.
In what may be marching orders for his national security adviser, John Bolton, US President Donald Trump tweeted last week: “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are bombing the hell out of Idlib Province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians. The World is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!”
While few expect the advisors’ meeting this month in Jerusalem to produce immediate results, American and Israeli officials hope that it could prepare the ground for a deal that would further weaken Russian ties to Iran and reduce, if not terminate, Iran’s presence in Syria.
Among multiple scenarios being bounced around, some analysts believe a possible deal could involve Russia pushing Iran out of Syria, a key US and Israeli demand, in exchange for the lifting of at least some American and European sanctions against Russia and US acceptance of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a similar Russian proposal last November.
“The fact that the Russians see value in these conversations, that they’re willing to do it publicly, I think is in and of itself quite significant. And so we are hopeful that they’re coming to the meeting with some fresh proposals that will allow us to make progress,” said a senior Trump administration official.
The officials suggest that a recent Russian refusal to sell Iran its most advanced S-400 missile defense system because it could fuel regional tensions, as well as tacit Russian acquiescence to Israeli military strikes against Iranian and Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah targets in Syria, could open the door to a potential deal. Iran has denied wanting to acquire the Russian system, while Russia has officially demanded that Israel halt its attacks and respect Syrian sovereignty.
Bolton’s discussions with Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council, could not come at a worse moment for Iran. The Islamic Republic is struggling to dampen the effect of harsh US sanctions following the Trump administration’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.
Analysts Udi Dekel and Carmit Valensi argued in a report published last month by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) that despite public statements to the contrary, Russia, like Israel, rejects withdrawal of US forces from Syria.
After announcing a complete pullback in February, Trump has since agreed to keep several hundred US troops in the country. Dekel and Valensi said a US withdrawal would strengthen Iran and force Russia to allow Iran to take control of oil fields in the east of the country.
Writing in Haaretz, columnist Zvi Bar’el suggested that Russia and Iran differ over the endgame in Syria. “Russia has no intention of simply returning Syria to Assad’s control,” Bar’el said. He added that Russia sees Syria as a base from which to forge closer ties to the Gulf and Egypt. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The rescue of Bashar al-Assad’s regime by the pro-Assad coalition, comprising Russia, Iran, and Iranian proxies, led to the victory of the regime over the rebels, aside from two areas that are not under regime control – the area controlled by Kurdish forces in the northeast, and the Sunni rebel enclave in Idlib. The coalition’s achievements stem primarily from the effective cooperation between Iran and Russia since 2015 in fighting the rebels. Now, with the battles over, despite shared interests in consolidating the Assad regime, inherent tensions between Russia and Iran regarding influence in Syria have emerged in greater relief. Russia believes that Iran’s efforts to establish permanent military and civilian outposts in Syria undermine the fragile stability in the country and the ability to attract external investments that are critical for Syria’s reconstruction. In contrast, Iran feels that a Russian-Saudi-American-Israeli coalition is forming, designed to eject it from Syria. This is compounded by a series of steps taken by President Assad in the wake of Russian pressure that restricts Tehran’s military and economic involvement in Syria. This has recently led to the contention that there is a gap between Iran and Russia regarding their interests in Syria.
The Principal Sources of Tension
On the international level: Russia, eager to translate its investment in Syria into achievements in the international arena, has tried to convince the United States that it is indispensable to efforts to establish stability in the country and that it holds the key to removing Iran’s influence in Syria. Russia is intent on leading the process of reconstruction in Syria, with an emphasis on realizing the potential of the energy sources, and to this end it aims to recruit the wealthy Sunni Arab states, especially those in the Persian Gulf; they, in turn, are making their assistance conditional upon limiting Iran’s activities in Syria. In return for removing some of Iran’s military capabilities from Syria (especially surface-to-surface missile systems), Moscow hopes for relief from the Western sanctions imposed on it. However, it knows that it does not have sufficient leverage to remove Iran’s military capabilities, and ties this step to lighter or rescinded American sanctions on Iran.
For its part, Iran seeks to mediate between Syria and Turkey in order to create a new three-way regional alliance under its auspices – perhaps in competition with Russia – that would lead the mediation efforts in Syria. Tehran aims to convince Damascus that it is able to restore stability within Syria’s borders, by establishing reasonable relations with its Iraqi, Turkish, and Lebanese neighbors. In Iran’s view, relations with Turkey are critical in advance of the departure of American forces from northeast Syria. Indeed, Assad announced recently that he is ready for dialogue with Turkey. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The last two weeks have seen a succession of security incidents in the Syrian theater: anti-aircraft fire from Syrian territory at Israeli planes flying over the Golan Heights; retaliatory Israeli strikes on anti-aircraft batteries and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as on additional targets on the Syrian side of the border; the launch of two Grad rockets from Syrian territory at Israel’s Mount Hermon; Israeli response with strikes on Iranian, Hezbollah, and Syrian regime targets, chief among them a logistics center used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which includes an operational infrastructure that had been speedily built in the Tiyas military airbase (an area according to the Iranians was under a Russian defensive umbrella); and anti-aircraft fire from Syria toward Mount Hermon, without any ordnance falling within Israeli territory.
The two Grad rockets were launched at Mount Hermon (one landing on it and the other apparently within Syrian territory) from a range of some 30 km within the border, an area where a number of groups are active and have an interest in striking at Israel, each for its own reasons. The first is the Assad regime, which seeks to deter Israel from continued strikes in Syria; the second is the Shi’ite militias run by Iran, whose motivation is to avenge Israel’s aerial attacks against the Iranian entrenchment and its proxies in Syria; the third is Hezbollah, which is signaling that it does not intend to give up on its precision-missile project—and if doing this from Syria and not from Lebanon is possible, then all the better.
Another possible theory is that ties between Moscow and Tehran may have soured over the Syrian question, with Assad complaining about having to pay the price of Iran’s actions in Syria, and that, as a result, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are interested in stirring up escalation without taking responsibility for it. The bottom line is to increase Syrian dependency on Iran, given its damage power – the power to undermine stability and disrupt the political processes necessary for reforming the country’s governance.
Israel, for its part, is taking a dual approach to the Syrian theater. On the one hand, as far as it is concerned, the only responsible actor is the Assad regime. This view stems from the “educational” doctrine that avoids accepting a plurality of responsible actors; whoever invites hostile elements into his country and hosts them should then bear the consequences. And indeed, Israel has placed the responsibility for the firing at the Hermon on the Assad regime, as it is the actor who controls the area, without making any direct allegations against Iran.
On the other hand, Israel sees Iran as an enemy whose consolidation in Syria poses a core challenge and threat that must be disrupted through air strikes and other military operations, and not by targeting the Assad regime.
Israel has restrained its strikes in Syria in recent months, apparently due to pressure from Moscow, informed by a desire to preserve good ties with Russia in order to help advance a coordinated Russian-American move toward an arrangement in Syria that would entail removing the Iranian military forces. The rocket-launching incident provided the IDF with an opportunity to strike at Iranian infrastructures that had been rebuilt and renewed in Syria without overly angering Russia and possibly also to demonstrate the dangers inherent to Iranian conduct and to encourage Russia, as well as the Assad regime, to move ahead with the political process in Syria. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Syrian civil war may seem to be winding down, but Israel is increasingly anxious after Russia’s surprise announcement it will give Syria full control of sophisticated S-300 air defense systems that could threaten Israeli aircraft. That’s not just a theoretical concern, because Israel has been hitting targets linked to Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, including Syrian military bases, with at least 10 Syrian and Hezbollah personnel reportedly killed this weekend alone.
To defuse the rising tensions, President Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, will soon head to Jerusalem to meet with his Russian and Israeli counterparts — a trilateral event that embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “unprecedented.” Bolton is considered more hawkish than diplomatic, but his long-standing animus towards Iran might actually help out here because Russia has its own misgivings about giving Iran too free a hand in Syria.
The S-300 Threat
Until last fall, Syrian air defenses used a mix of aging Soviet-made missiles — SA-2s, SA-5s, SA-6s — and more modern Russian products like the SA-17 (Buk in Russian) and the SA-22 (Pantsir). In October, however, Russia gave Syria the much more sophisticated S-300, an anti-aircraft and missile defense system considered comparable to the American Patriot. (Russia already had S-300s defending its own base in Syria and has sold some systems to Iran). In fact, S-300 has the radar and missile range to lock on to targets in Israeli airspace, potentially engaging Israeli aircraft soon after they take off.
But while Russia has been training Syrians to operate the S-300s, Russian personnel remained in control, and they never engaged Israeli aircraft or missiles. For their part, the Israelis for their part steered clear of striking sites where they might injure Russian troops.
That will change when the Russians give the Syrians full control — something Israel had asked the Kremlin not to do. There’ll be “no responsible adult [on] the trigger,” one Israeli defense source said, raising the risk not only to Israeli military aircraft but to passenger jets. That’s because the Syrians aren’t particularly discriminate in their targeting, with one Syrian battery (not an S-300) having mistakenly destroyed a Russian IL-20M intelligence plane last September, killing 15 Russians aboard.
Once the Syrians take over — and the Russian personnel is gone — the S-300 batteries will become legitimate targets, Israeli sources say.
As tensions rose, Prime Minister Netanyahu first proposed a US-Russian-Israeli meeting when he visited Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in February.
Last week, the White House officially announced that “United States National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton, Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev will meet in Jerusalem, Israel, to discuss regional security issues” at an unspecified date “in June.”
“I proposed to Trump and Putin to form a US-Russia-Israel trilateral committee that would meet in Jerusalem to discuss the security situation in the Middle East and both of them agreed,” Netanyahu declared. “This is unprecedented. A meeting like has never taken place before in Israel. Never.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
On Topic Links:
IAF Destroys Syrian Missile Launcher After Missile Fired At Israeli Plane: Seth J. Frentzman, Jerusalem Post, May 28, 2019 — The IAF destroyed a Syrian launcher that fired an anti-aircraft missile at an Israeli plane, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed on Monday night, stressing that Israel will not tolerate any aggression against it.
Eye On Iran, Israelis Conduct Huge Two-Week Exercise On Cyprus: Arie Egosi, Breaking Defense, June 13, 2019 — As the Middle Eastern kettle boils hotter, Israel is striving to improve the readiness and efficiency of its forces with regional exercises aimed, in part, at building de facto regional alliances.
From Cold War to Civil War: 75 Years of Russian Syrian Relations: Aron Lund, Ui, 7/2019 — The Russian Syrian relationship turns 75 in 2019
Documents Shine Rare Light On Syrian Government Crackdown: Egypt Independent, May 2, 2019 — Thousands of documents purportedly collected from abandoned Syrian government offices during the country’s civil war reveal the reach of President Bashar Assad’s shadowy, labyrinthine security agencies as they spied on the population at large, sought to eliminate dissidents at all cost and systematically persecuted the Kurdish minority even before the onset of protests.