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AnalysisThe focal point of global decision-making is moving from Washington to Moscow

Moscow enters the Syrian fray, but to what end?

Putin smelled American weakness in the Middle East and was only too happy to step in. Is his endgame a Little Russia instead of IS, or is he just protecting Assad’s rump?

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 24, 2015. (AFP/ RIA NOVOSTI / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY)
Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 24, 2015. (AFP/ RIA NOVOSTI / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY)

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah could hardly contain his pleasure Friday about Russia’s stepped up involvement in the Syrian civil war.

In a festive Eid al-Adha interview to his home turf media outlet, the al-Manar TV station, Nasrallah tried to present himself as an ally of the Russians in relation to their plans and intentions for the region.

Nasrallah also explained to viewers that the Americans’ failure to defeat Islamic State was behind the Russians’ decision to send a sizable contingent to Syria and apparently to increase their military presence in the country even more in the future.

He went into detail when he said the American strategy of airstrikes only against IS, with no boots on the ground, would never have any real effect.

Nasrallah, who has decided in his late middle age to become an analyst on Russian matters — after a stint ineptly commenting on Israel affairs — is partially correct.

Russia’s willingness to jump into the Middle Eastern fray is a result of America’s weakness across the region.

The war against Islamic State did not bear fruit as Pentagon officials had hoped, and the Islamists are still on the march. The program to train moderate rebels and give them advanced weapons did not bring the expected results.

But beyond this, the Russians smelled America’s hesitation in the Middle East, its vacillation about using force. Moscow understands that Obama’s USA will do anything to avoid being dragged into another war in the region.

While Washington sees its position as legitimate, Muslim states and Russia see it as proof of weakness and fear.

And when an old shark like Russian President Vladimir Putin smells fear, he rushes to take advantage, not for the benefit of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Nasrallah or Iran, but first and foremost for his own benefit and for the sake of Russian interests.

The stream of volunteers joining Islamic State and coming from former Soviet countries, especially Chechnya and the Caucasus, has shown Putin the magnitude of the Islamist threat. Additionally, the latest successes of the rebels in Syria near the Alawite coastal strip have made the Russians understand that the remains of Assad’s regime are in danger – including the Russian naval base in Tartus and the Russian outpost in Latakia.

Transformation wrought by the nuclear deal

 

The nuclear deal with Iran, to which Russia was a party, has also managed to telegraph American weakness to Moscow

In theory, the agreement should have strengthened US President Barack Obama and proved his regional leadership. But in reality the opposite has happened, and the Middle East saw the deal as proof that the US will compromise at any price, even if this will have negative implications in the future.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, other Gulf states, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinians and, of course, the Shiite-Alawite axis all understand the focal point of global decision-making is moving from Washington to Moscow.

All the above-mentioned countries will need to deal with an increasing Iranian threat, and the referee or mediator who will solve problems between them and Tehran will be Russia – not the US.

This new power balance between superpowers in the Middle East, together with the nuclear agreement, will reverberate far beyond what any analysis can fully comprehend.

As far as Israel is concerned, it is obvious that the rules of using military force in Syria will change. Israeli airstrikes against weapons convoys traveling inside Syria will likely become more complicated, at the very least.

Will Israel allow itself to freely operate along the Syrian-Lebanese border, so dangerously close to the Russian airbase in Latakia, where the Russian jets, according to analysts, are intended for dogfights, not airstrikes? How will Israel react to the transfer of so-called “game-changing” weapons from Syria to Hezbollah, a supposed red line for Jerusalem?

And what can one do about the Iranian interference in Syria, now enjoying Russian backing and expected to only increase following the nuclear agreement and the funneling of tens of billions of dollars to Iran’s coffers?

Nasrallah recounted how the Iranians succeeded in effecting a six-month ceasefire in Zabadani, on the Lebanese border, and in two Shiite villages in the Idlib province. Their fingerprints are evident in areas the Assad regime still controls in the Syrian Golan Heights, from which they try again and again to initiate terror attacks against Israeli targets.

The deal announced on Saturday, according to which Russia will sell Iran jets and satellite equipment worth some $21 billion, is a good illustration of the rising power of Iran in the region.

At this point, it is also too early to determine what Russia’s intentions in Syria and the Middle East are.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Kremlin in Moscow, September 2013. (AP/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press service, File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Kremlin in Moscow, September 2013. (AP/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press service, File)

Is Moscow going to get entangled in “Afghanistan 2,” and try and conquer from IS large tracts of land in what used to be Syria? Or is it planning to just carve some order from the chaos on behalf of Assad? This would mean keeping the borders of the “Alawistan” rump state – from the northwestern border with Turkey, south to Latakia and Tartus, and maintaining the axis between Damascus-Homs and Latakia and the Syria-Lebanon border free from Islamic State with the help of Hezbollah.

Either way, Russia’s upgraded role in Syria indicates that Assad is likely to be with us for some years to come. For years, the US had been insisting that he had to go. Now, Secretary Kerry is sounding far less certain. In today’s Syria, after all, it’s increasingly Moscow, not Washington, that playing the decisive role.

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