A New Russian Order: Boaz Bismuth, Israel Hayom, Mar. 24, 2017— When Russia joined us here in the Middle East in September 2015, it had three clear goals…
How Worried are Israel’s Leaders About Putin’s Syrian Warning?: Yossi Melman, Jerusalem Post, Mar. 23, 2017—Contradictory reports, most of them unconfirmed and unofficial, have emerged in recent days regarding Israeli-Russian understandings over the war in Syria.
Is Putin Bibi's New 'Bestie'?: Arad Nir, Al-Monitor, Mar. 6, 2017— Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves March 9 for Moscow, where he will have a quick meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
How Russia Is Turning Syria into a Major Naval Base for Nuclear Warships (and Israel Is Worried): Michael Peck, National Interest, March 18, 2017— During the 1970s, the Syrian naval base of Tartus became a major port servicing warships of the Soviet Union’s Fifth Mediterranean squadron.
The Prospect for Russia's Jews: Maxim D. Shrayer, Mosaic, Mar. 6, 2017
The Calamity of 1917: Max Boot, Commentary, Mar. 14, 2017
Russia Seeks Another Mediterranean Naval Base in Libya: Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, JCPA, January 22, 2017
So Long as it Doesn’t Fail Spectacularly, Trump’s Foreign Policy Just Might Work: Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2017
Israel Hayom, Mar. 24, 2017
When Russia joined us here in the Middle East in September 2015, it had three clear goals: It wanted to save the collapsing regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad; minimize the Americans' role in Syria (and possibly in the Middle East as a whole); and simultaneously lead the war against the Islamic State group, which posed and still poses a threat to Western capitals after a series of deadly terrorist attacks.
In the year and a half since then, it is safe to say that the Russian objectives have largely been met. Russia is now the main player in the new Syrian order. Assad is raising his head enough to consider refurnishing the presidential residence in Damascus and even a project to rebuild Aleppo. Talks on the future of Syria, to which Russia, Turkey and Iran are all parties, are underway in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, not in Vienna. The center of gravity has shifted to Asia, and Washington is barely even in the picture — the U.S. is still pondering whether to support the Kurds in their rebellion against Assad and their dreams of independence, or Turkey, America's NATO ally, which opposes the concept of independence for Kurdistan. The Russians don't have these problems.
Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad can grin at his reflection in the mirror every morning as he grooms his little mustache. In 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande planned to attack the regime in Damascus after Assad used chemical weapons on his people for the 14th time since the civil war broke out in 2011. As we know, no steps were ultimately taken against Syria because Obama forgot the meaning of "red lines."
Obama and Cameron are already history, and Hollande is counting down the days before he leaves office, with very unflattering polls keeping him from running for president again. There's no doubt that Assad was saved thanks to this trio, and now thanks to Putin, as well. The big question now is where Russia is headed and what it wants in the Middle East. We need to remember that the Russians are at a crossroads, not least because of last week's missile launch that led to the Israeli ambassador to Moscow being summoned and reprimanded.
Paradoxically, to achieve peace, Russia needs both Israel and the U.S. This might be the reason why, even as the Israeli ambassador was called in, we saw no criticism of Israel in the Russian media. They wanted to put the whole thing behind them as quickly as possible. Despite gains in Syria, there are still limits on Russia. Assad and Iran do not exactly sound obedient, so we need not take every utterance of Assad's as if it was dictated by Moscow. Not every Iranian step or action in Syria is to Russia's liking, either. In fact the opposite is true — it's quite possible that Russia, like Israel, has an interest in curtailing Iran's activity in Syria. Israel is worried about the creation of a de facto border with Iran to the north. For the Russians, meanwhile, Tehran can be more than a minor annoyance, if only because of demographics.
Some even see Russia as a Muslim nation. Islam arrived in Russia 1,300 years ago, and over 15% of the people living in Russian territory are Muslims. There are over 10,000 mosques there, including a major one in Moscow. Russian Muslims are not happy about the burgeoning romance between Moscow and the Shiite axis of Assad-Iran-Hezbollah. Russia might be winning in the short- to mid-term, but in the long term, it's not certain that its bet on the Shiites will pay off. Moscow has good reason to fear another Arab Spring in the Caucasus and the rest of the secular territories, which is why Russia cannot allow Iran to take hold of any territory in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon, as Iran dreams of doing. This might be why Russia and Israel have no problem finding common ground on the Iranian issue.
"Aside from the attempt to keep the Assad regime alive, Russia and Iran don't necessarily have the same strategic interests in Syria," says Dr. Sarah Fainberg, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. "Russia has an interest in checking the expansion of the Shiite axis. Precisely because of this, Russia is positioning itself as a referee between Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. But we should take into account the suspicion that exists between Russia and Iran, which limits the Russians' ability to dictate what the Iranians will do," Fainberg says.
Fainberg thinks Russia is ambivalent about Hezbollah: On the one hand, it understands the Israeli concerns about the organization gaining strength in Syria, and on the other, it sees the Shiite group as another source of support in preserving the Assad regime and in the war against Islamic State, as well as a legitimate political factor in Lebanon. This is exactly why the Russians need President Donald Trump's United States — they need America's help to limit Iran's status in the Middle East. In the meantime, almost all the players, including Russia, are waiting to see what Trump's next move will be…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]
Jerusalem Post, Mar. 23, 2017
Contradictory reports, most of them unconfirmed and unofficial, have emerged in recent days regarding Israeli-Russian understandings over the war in Syria. The reports follow Jerusalem’s admission that its warplanes last Friday attacked missiles being transfered via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The rare admission, which was contrary to the traditional Israeli policy of ambiguity, of neither confirming nor denying past strikes, triggered a chain of events in which, just hours after the attack, Israel’s ambassador in Moscow was urgently summoned to Russia’s Foreign Ministry and asked to provide explanations.
Media reports suggested that President Vladimir Putin, who is the sponsor and savior of the Syrian regime, expressed anger, while Syria’s ruler, Bashar Assad, boasted to Russian lawmakers that Putin had promised to rein in Israel. Israeli commentators wrote the operational freedom hitherto enjoyed by the IAF is over. Judging from statements by Israeli leaders and military commanders over the past two days, it seems they are not seriously worried. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a state visit to China, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot remained undeterred, delivering, more or less, the same message to the effect that Israel will continue pursuing its national security interests and defend its redlines in Syria.
Israeli policy is noninterventionist, with three exceptions. One is that the IDF retaliates from air and land whenever shells and rockets hit on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, regardless of whether it was targeted intentionally. Another is the establishment of terrorist networks near the Israeli border; attempts to do so have resulted in the assassination of Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah commanders. The third and most important exception is the occasional bombing, without admission, of convoys carrying and warehouses storing long-range, accurate missiles sent from Iran via Syria that are destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since 2013, some 20 such incidents have been recorded by the media based on Syria’s official statements and rare Israeli claims of responsibility.
Since Moscow deployed its forces in Syria 18 months ago, Israel added another factor to the equation; it reached understandings with Russia in order to know each other’s interests and avoid mistakes and even dog fights between their two air forces. These understandings are formulated in the creation of direct lines of communication between the intelligence and air forces of the two countries, and are known as a “deconflicting mechanism.” The unrattled reaction by top political and military brass indicate that they know better, especially Liberman, who is considered to be close to and have a good understanding of the Putin administration. It is very likely that Putin is playing a two-sided game – he understands the Israeli concerns and interests, but when Israel confirms that it has attacked Syria, he has no choice but to publicly denounce it.
However, on top of the understandings with Russia and the redlines, there is now one more important Israeli interest – to prevent the deployment of Hezbollah or Iraqi-Shi’ite militias sponsored and guided by Iranian officers near the Israel-Syria border on the Golan Heights. The recent success of the Assad regime and expected defeat of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria make this scenario more and more possible. Iran and Hezbollah hope to be positioned on the border and thus threaten to open a second front alongside Lebanon against Israel in case of a future war. Israel is committed to stop this, either by reaching another understanding with Putin, and through him influencing Assad, Iran and Hezbollah in that direction, or, as a last resort, by force.
Al-Monitor, Mar. 6, 2017
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves March 9 for Moscow, where he will have a quick meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin…Sources close to Netanyahu say that he had asked for the meeting, the fifth between the two men in little over a year, to discuss developments in Syria, where Moscow's military presence has made the Russian Federation Israel's new neighbor. Military sources keeping tabs on security coordination between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Russia stress that so far, relations can be characterized by a level of coordination that appears to be perfect. Nevertheless, as in any relationship, it is important to constantly work on it instead of taking it for granted. In this regard, Netanyahu gets compliments from Israel's high-ranking military and civilian echelons.
No one interviewed claimed that Israel had anticipated how intensely Russia would be involved in Syria or the level of coordination that could be reached between Moscow and Jerusalem, particularly given that Putin is acting in Syria as if he owned the country. Nevertheless, a senior Israeli official intimately familiar with ties between Russia and Israel who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity emphasized that Moscow's involvement and coordination were “an expected surprise," but added, “Once it happened, we were able to explain it.”
Israel's ongoing success in securing its strategic needs given the Russian presence in Syria can be attributed to three factors. First and foremost is the respect that Putin has for the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel in particular. The Israeli source could not stress this enough, remarking, “Putin is the most philo-Semitic Russian head of state ever.” He loves and admires the Jews, said the source, and he isn't afraid to express it. Putin often used to talk about a Jewish family that had lived near his parents' home and how, when he was a boy, he would eat and study at their table.
The second factor is the good interpersonal chemistry between Putin and Netanyahu. During Netanyahu's many years in office, he has made a point of fostering good relations with Russia, as have all other Israeli prime ministers since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Israeli official pointed out, however, that while the other prime ministers visited Russia and were received with great respect, the personal bond that has developed between Netanyahu and Putin is unique. “Whenever the prime minister calls, Putin answers,” he said. “There has never been a case where we asked to set up a meeting for Netanyahu and the Kremlin didn't offer us a date immediately.”
One example of this bond is the way Putin hosted Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, last June, when they paid a visit to Russia to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The Israeli source noted in amazement that Putin devoted eight straight hours to hosting Netanyahu, stressing that even the Russian president's advisers were hard pressed to believe it. “Putin joined Netanyahu for a special performance at the Bolshoi Theater, and when the show was over, he continued on to a reception hosted by the Israeli Embassy,” the source said. “The two leaders sang a song together, and Putin agreed to pose for selfies with any of the guests who asked, and there were lots who did.” The two leaders are happy to show their fondness for one another and speak with the kind of frank honesty that is rare to find in international relations. “They know how to talk to each other, and this helps benefit each of their mutual and national interests.”
The third factor in the relationship is strategic. The close ties that have developed between Israel and Russia are based, first and foremost, on trust. Both parties know they will not agree on everything. The Russian rule is as long as you don't deceive us, we won't deceive you. It is clear to the Russians, the Israeli source said, that strikes in Syria attributed to the IDF have never been about them. Rather, they have targeted forces that pose a risk to Israel’s security. The Russians are willing to accept that the weapons systems they provide to the Syrian army and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad then transfers to Hezbollah will be destroyed by Israeli Air Force jets, so the Syrians claim. They do not understand Israel's sensitivity to attacks to the extent that a response is required whenever a weapon is misfired in its direction or a rocket crosses the Golan Heights, but they respect it, as long as they are kept informed, and everything is coordinated with them.
It is obvious to the Russians that the United States is Israel's No. 1 strategic ally, even if it sometimes seems as if Netanyahu would have preferred the Russians' pragmatic approach to the Palestinian issue over the American approach, or at least that was the case until Donald Trump entered the Oval Office.
Putin, like all his predecessors in the Kremlin, always makes sure to vote in favor of the Palestinians and against Israel in the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, however, never has he hassled Israel about its policies. As the head of an enormous country with a 15% Muslim population, it is important for Putin that Israel reach an arrangement with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, all of the concerns he has raised about Israeli actions are practical and pragmatic. He has not raised moral issues concerning human rights. So, Netanyahu accepts Russia's UN voting patterns for what it is, while appreciating the way Moscow deals with it in other regards.
From this, Putin looks like someone who would be interested in a “deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, the kind agreed to by both parties. This is somewhat in line with Trump's approach laid out during the Feb. 15 press conference with Netanyahu at the White House. Yet despite the statements of friendship and affection that the new US president showered on Netanyahu and Israel, the Trump administration's actual foreign policy remains a complete riddle. No one knows what Trump plans to do in Syria, while the relationship between his inner circle and Russia is also unclear.
Another round of talks to resolve the Syrian conflict will be held later this month in the Kazakh capital of Astana. Thus far, the talks have received limited press coverage in Israel, even though they could result in a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, a strategic red line as far as the Israeli government is concerned. The rare personal chemistry between the Israeli prime minister and the Russian president has so far managed to maintain a dialogue focused on the two countries' interests, but also one based on mutual respect, trust and admiration. This week, Netanyahu heads to Moscow to keep the dialogue alive.
National Interest, March 18, 2017
During the 1970s, the Syrian naval base of Tartus became a major port servicing warships of the Soviet Union’s Fifth Mediterranean squadron. The Soviet Union is gone, and so is Syria as a unified nation. But Russia is back, and it’s building up Tartus again as a naval base that can handle Russia’s largest nuclear-powered ships. Already, Israel says the Tartus base is affecting its naval operations. U.S. and NATO operations could be next.
Under the forty-nine-year agreement inked late last year by Russia and Syria, “the maximum number of the Russian warships allowed at the Russian naval facility at one time is 11, including nuclear-powered warships, providing that nuclear and ecological security rules are observed,” according to Russia’s RT news site. Russia will also be allowed to expand port facilities to accommodate the vessels. The specification allowing nuclear-powered warships means that Russia wants to be able to base in Syria large surface ships, namely Kirov-class nuclear-powered battle cruisers, as well as nuclear submarines.
In addition, the treaty allows “Russia is allowed to bring in and out any kind of ‘weaponry, ammunition, devices and materials’ to provide security for the facility staff, crew, and their families throughout the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic ‘without any duties or levies,’” according to RT. Expansion of the port will take about five years, according to an anonymous source cited in Russia’s Sputnik News. “The source added that the works would focus on dredging operations to allow cruisers and even possibly aircraft carriers to use the facility’s infrastructure,” Sputnik News reported. “According to the source, Russia also needs to develop the facility’s ground infrastructure, through construction of canalization, electricity generation facilities and barracks for the servicemen.”
Sputnik News also listed other provisions of the agreement. These include: Russia will be responsible for sea and air security of the base, while Syria handles the land defenses…Russia can deploy “temporary mobile outposts” beyond the base, as long as they coordinate them with the Syrians…Russia can renovate the base at will, including underwater construction, and build offshore platforms…Upon Syrian request, Russia will send specialists to service Syrian warships, conduct search and rescue in Syrian waters, and organize the defense of Tartus…Syria agrees not to “make any objections related to the military activities of the base, which will also be beyond Damascus’ jurisdiction.”…“Syria also pledges to solve any conflicts that may arise if a third party objects to the activities of the base.”
The Tartus deal is significant on several levels. For starters, the explicit mention of Tartus servicing nuclear-powered ships suggests that Russia may operate its biggest ships in the eastern Mediterranean, such as the nuclear battle cruiser Peter the Great. At the least, it indicates that nuclear submarines could be based at Tartus. That Russia can put deploy outposts beyond the base suggests that Russia will take an expansive view of defending Tartus against rebel attacks. Russia will also be responsible for sea and air security at Tartus. Yet since the Syrian rebels don’t have a navy or air force—but the Americans and the Israelis do—this indicates that Moscow is eyeing Tartus through the lens of a possible conflict with outside powers.
However, the agreement also contains two contradictory provisions. On the one hand, it bars Syria from objecting to Russian military activities at the base, which will not be under Syrian jurisdiction. So, if Russian ships and aircraft ever decide to harass NATO and Israeli forces in the Mediterranean—just as Russia has done in the Black Sea—then Syria can’t stop them. On the other hand, Syria is obligated to “solve any conflicts” if a “third party” objects to the activities at the Tartus base. If this means that the United States or Israel complains, then Syria must resolve the problem—even though it has no jurisdiction over the base or operations conducted from there.
In any event, Israel has gotten the message. “There have been instances in which we assessed the situation and changed or chose not to carry out operations,” Rear Adm. Dror Friedman, Israeli Navy chief of staff, told the Jerusalem Post. “You see their activities in the field and you see them putting down roots, you see their activities in the Port of Tartus and you understand that this isn’t the activity of someone who is planning to pack their bags and leave tomorrow morning.”
The Prospect for Russia's Jews: Maxim D. Shrayer, Mosaic, Mar. 6, 2017 —Why do you stay here?” “I have a son here,” he replied. And then he added: “God gave me as a Jew such a place in life—to live in Russia.” “What about the other Jews, why do they stay here?” “About the others I don’t know, but I imagine they too are needed here by nature and the Creator.”
The Calamity of 1917: Max Boot, Commentary, Mar. 14, 2017—One hundred years ago Wednesday—on March 15, 1917—one of the most momentous events of the 20th century occurred: Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, thus ending 300 years of Romanov rule of Russia and setting the stage, later the year, for the Bolshevik takeover. Once Lenin was in power, Russia was hurtling on the trajectory toward the Stalinist terror and mass famine, World War II, and the Cold War. Russia is today on a path toward a post-Soviet future dominated by a former KGB officer who seems to be plotting to reassemble the Russian Empire the Bolsheviks temporarily tore down before rebuilding and expanding it.
Russia Seeks Another Mediterranean Naval Base in Libya: Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, JCPA, January 22, 2017—In recent months, Russia has been ramping up its involvement in the Libyan sociopolitical crisis, which has been ongoing since the removal of its ruler, Muammar Qaddafi. Russia has been strengthening its ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who heads the LNA (the Libyan National Army), one of the many military militias operating in Libya, and opposes the country’s official government.
So Long as it Doesn’t Fail Spectacularly, Trump’s Foreign Policy Just Might Work: Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2017—At the heart of President Trump’s foreign policy team lies a glaring contradiction. On the one hand, it is composed of men of experience, judgment and traditionalism.