Russian Roulette

There’s nothing like waking up in the morning and reading that you are now a target of Syrian long-range Tishrin missiles that, according to the British Sunday Sunday Times, have been deployed in readiness for another Israeli airstrike.  The reason this headline didn’t cause my heart to skip a beat is because;  a) I recall an article stating that it is exactly these extreme circumstances that make us Israelis the happiest people in the world (“Why are the Israelis so damn happy?”, The daily Beast, April 2013), and b) as a student of the Cold War, I interpret this missile deployment as a diplomatic signal, albeit a serious one, attempting to deter Israel from further airstrikes against targets on Syrian soil, and not as an aggressive attack move. Comforting, right?  
Speaking of the Cold War…Given the reports and incidents from just the last few weeks involving the U.S., Russia and the Middle East, one cannot but be reminded of the good old days when the world was much simpler – two super-powers using puppet states located thousands of miles away from their homelands to compete over power and influence.
Now, the Cold War is long gone, and Russia is far from being the super-power it once was.  Yet Russia and the U.S. are still at loggerheads over a series of issues that may signify a Russian attempt to recall past glory, or at least challenge American hegemony. In the Middle East, Russia has countered American foreign policy at every turn, the Iranian nuclear program a good example. As far as we know, this Russian opposition has only taken declarative or rhetoric form.  In the case of Syria though, Russia seems intent on translating words into action. For the sake of clarification, here’s a recap on recent Russian words and actions:
  • Russia condemns alleged Israeli bombing of Syrian targets, claims it an infringement of a state’s sovereignty and a violation of international law
  • Russia declares it will supply Syria with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, merely fulfilling past deals
  • Russia plans the transfer of advanced anti-ship Yakhont cruise missiles to Syria
  • Russia sends a dozen or more warships to patrol Syrian waters
What are we to make of this Russian policy?
Following reports of chemical weapons being used by Assad, international intervention has been increasingly mentioned as a viable option. An Israeli official even threatened that Israel would topple Assad’s regime should Syria respond to the bombing of Syrian targets two weeks ago.
Using Cold War terminology again, Czar Putin and his cronies are well aware of American hegemony, but would still very much like to see Russia preserve its old spheres of influence. Syria is considered by Russia to be an important strategic foothold in the Middle East, especially the port city of Tartus where it holds a naval base. So, Russia is reading the signs, and is sending out a signal of its own. In an attempt to deter outside intervention in Syria, Russia is supplying, or declares it is planning to supply, advance weapon systems to Assad’s regime and is bolstering its own military presence in the area. 
From Israel’s somewhat narrower point of view, a more active Russian involvement does not bode well. On the one hand, though they will not openly admit it, Israel and the U.S. would prefer the devil they know in control of Syria – Assad, than the devil they do not know – Salafi and Jihadist groups.  In this respect, Russian moves to strengthen Assad are not necessarily negative. On the other hand, Israel can’t be thrilled to see advanced weapons reach Syria since firstly, they may eventually reach Hezbollah, and secondly, they hinder future strikes against weapon deliveries to Hezbollah.  
These considerations were probably discussed by Putin and Netanyahu during their brief meeting last week. Israel asked the Russians to put on hold the S-300 arms deal, a request that was probably denied by Russia.  As in the past, Russia does not care much for Israel’s interests, and acts of its own volition. Russia though, must realize that as it attempts  to puppeteer Assad, there is one player in the region that is playing a totally different ball game – Iran. Weapons supplied to Assad can easily find their way to Hezbollah, as Iran seeks to deter an attack by Israel and/or the U.S., which it feels may occur later this year.  In such a case, Israel may feel compelled to act, again, this time leading to an all-out conflagration. Before playing roulette, Russia would do well to decide whether such an outcome also serves its interests in the Middle East.
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