Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu meets Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Sept. 21. / Ria Novost i/ AFP / Getty
Russia is exploiting Western weakness to strengthen its position in the Mediterranean, but Israeli interests are not necessarily threatened.
Russia is back in the Middle East in a wholesale fashion, signing huge aircraft sales to Iran, making weapons supply contracts with Egypt and particularly, injecting air, naval and land forces into the super-sensitive Syrian coastal area, where it now has not just the naval base at Tartus but an air base near Latakia, with a large number of advanced aircraft already deployed and being used.
Russia’s motivations are quite clear:
1) A stick in the eye of the United States, indicating that Russia will now strive to occupy the hegemonic position the U.S. has forfeited by its feckless behavior in the region in recent years.
2) Maintain Bashar al-Assad in power in the Alawite coastal region and the corridor to Damascus. This is being done in conjunction with Iran, which is deploying grounds forces to the area.
3) By this means ensuring protection of its bases on the Syrian coast, Russia’s only presence in the eastern Mediterranean. The naval base in Sevastopol in the Crimea is subject to blockage of the passage through the Bosporus. There is no such problem at Tartus.
4) Becoming a major and possibly THE major factor in any final settlement of the Syrian civil war. It has been noted that the first Russian air strikes were not directed at Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) but rather Syrian rebel groups supported by the U.S. fighting Assad.
5) Effectively creating a no-fly zone by deploying S-300 ship-to-air missiles on a warship off the coast at Latakia.
6) Being in a position to strike at ISIL forces, which include many Chechen and other North Caucasus fighters which may become a threat to Russia if and when they return.
China has already recognized the Russian claims by sending a flotilla headed by an aircraft carrier on a visit to Tartus.
As noted, Iran is a Russian ally in all of this (and vice-versa).
Europe and the U.S. are essentially absent except for making disapproving noises from time to time.
Turkey has no idea what to do and has ironically had to fall back on its NATO membership in protesting Russian incursions in Turkish air space. The whole deployment was effectuated so rapidly that Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Gulf States have not yet formulated a response.
And what about Israel? The Russian fait-accompli is by no means necessarily bad news for Israel. Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow appears to have resulted in a modus operandi and will presumably be detailed during the visit of the Russian deputy chief of staff this week.
Assad and his father maintained peace on the Syrian border with Israel for many years and Assad has no motivation whatsoever to change that situation. Hizbullah is fully occupied in Syria for the time being. Iranian troops in the area are no particular threat to Israel and stretches Iranian resources of funding and manpower even further.
The principal potentially negative element has to do with Israeli interception of supply caravans with Iranian equipment destined for Hizbullah. The Iranians can now claim that the supplies are actually for its own forces and whether the Russians would permit future Israeli interception operations is not clear. To identify a shipment is easy for Israeli intelligence. To determine its final destination is not.
There is a new dynamic in the Levant. It is due to a combination of a power vacuum created by the Western allies and the millennial Russia ambition to establish itself in the Mediterranean.
Israel is still the strongest military force in the region and the Russians know it. They have no obvious reason to challenge the Israeli position and many reasons to accommodate it. Putin is a rational actor and makes his decisions based on strategic calculations. So is Netanyahu.