Russia is now the undisputed new sheriff in the Middle East. A poll among Arab youth shows that, whereas this group trusted the US first and Russia last before Russia entered the fray in Syria in September 2015, after that time the situation reversed itself, with Russia now enjoying the most trust and approval of any world power among this group. Unless a major sea change occurs in the muddle that is US foreign policy, Russia will continue to acquire more and more control in the region. This can be attributed more than anything to Putin’s ability to bridge seemingly irreconcilably sides of conflicts. (Unfortunately, the US has traditionally defended predominantly the Israeli side while alienating the Muslims, especially the Shiites, and of these, especially the Syrians and Iranians, apparently in order to maintain good relations with the terror-exporting Saudis and Gulf statelets in return for their charging only US dollars for their oil and keeping their reserves in US dollars – a realistic but immoral basis for a relationship with brutal dictatorial regimes. In the long run, such a situation will inevitably fail.)
However, now that the US has declared its intent to leave Syria, aside from differences between Russia and Turkey regarding control over the north of Syria, and the terrorist activity in Idlib Providence, the most troubling issue is the continued attacks on Syria by Israel, which though lessened in intensity since the arrival of the S-300 system to the Syrian army, still plague the region. In Syria, Israel is therefore a de facto proxy of the US, the last one standing.
One problem for Russia is the US, which, for both religious and political reasons, is bonded eternally to Israel like Prometheus to his eagle. Another problem for Russia is that it wants good relations with Israel, while generally supporting the security of the Shiite Crescent, which Israel considers its arch-enemy. A related problem is that, ever since Soviet days, Russia’s tolerance toward Jews has been spotlighted in its propaganda, in contrast to the anti-Semitism of the German fascists. Putin has decided to uphold this same narrative in his Russian Federation’s public image, to highlight the difference between his country and its enemies. This is one reason why Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov recently said Israel’s “security is of paramount importance to us,” while also rebuking Israel for its “unjustified” missile attacks on Syria.
In his autobiography First Person, Putin said one source of his motivation for joining the KGB was the Soviet film Shchit i Mech (Щит и Меч, meaning Shield and Sword, the nickname for the KGB). Vadim Kozhevnikov’s novel on which the film is based includes scenes of German mistreatment of Jews contrasted with the Soviets’ kindness toward the same group. Soviet literature repeats this theme in various forms. Being anti-Semitic is considered fascist in Russia.
Today, about 20% of Israel’s population was born in Russia, and if we consider the descendants of these ethnic Russians, Israel has a very significant population with ties to Russia – another important reason for Russia to be solicitous of Israel’s security.
Thus, the balancing act between Israel and the Muslims that Russia also feels obliged to protect couldn’t be more delicate. And in view of this, the Russians are doing an exemplary job in terms of diplomacy and are the logical first choice for a future role as arbiters between the Muslims and the Jews and between the Palestinians and Israel.
But having made impressive gains in protecting Syria from terror and uniting disparate factions in the nation, their next challenge is how to keep the Israelis from aggressing against Syria. Indeed, Israel seems to have taken over the role of a US proxy in the region, allowing the US to indirectly influence Syria via a third party.
The Israeli Air Force’s favourite tactic in its missile strikes has been to use Lebanese air space to launch the missiles from its aircraft. This was rendered more complicated by the S-300 system provided by Russia to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), which theoretically can shoot down the offending aircraft. But the ever-resourceful Israelis found that they could continue these provocations by judicious positioning of the attacking aircraft in parts of Lebanese air space shared with commercial airliners, making it impossible for the Syrians to fire on them without endangering civilian lives. This Israeli strategy cost the Russians an Il-20 and its crew, putting the biggest strain on Israel-Russia relations since the Russians entered the war.
But what if Russia controlled Lebanese air space?
Very little is reported in the msm about Russian-Lebanese agreements that might make such arrangements possible, and when these reports emerge, they are often followed up by reports that the arrangements have been cancelled. I think this is due in part to the fact that neither Russia nor Lebanon wants Israel or the US to know what it is up to. It is also related to the reluctance of US media to invest many resources in translating news in Arabic or Hebrew to English, and this is due in turn to the lack of interest among the US public and US government and political influencers in events in the Middle East that they think don’t concern them – an indifference that can wind up giving Russia and its allies increased latitude in the development of their joint activities.
Tellingly, the reports are mostly from Middle Eastern sources.
Thus, Jerusalem Post reported in November 2018 that Lebanon was receiving military aid from Russia – that it had rejected this over “US concerns” but later admitted the accepted it. This aid was supposed to be for hardware but was scaled back to cartridges, again, apparently due to “US concerns.”
Israeli periodical Algemeiner reminds that Russo-Lebanese military contacts have been mixed, with the LAF turning down ten free Mig-29 fighter in favour of American and European hardware, of which $375 million were sent to Lebanon under the last 2 US administrations. I assume this is more indicative of Lebanon’s fear of the US and Israel than of a preference for Western arms. After all, Lebanon was almost utterly destroyed during the 2006 attack by Israel. But today, with Sheriff Putin in town, things will slowly change.
But we are not there yet. Israel continues to use Lebanese air space, illegally and probably against the will of the Lebanese. However, it is hard to say. Lebanon is an extremely complex country. Interestingly, its population is divided right down the middle by religion, in two ways. Firstly, remarkably, its Muslims are almost exactly half Sunni and half Shia. Secondly, its non-Muslim population, consisting mostly of Christians and Druze, is almost perfectly equal in size to its Muslim population. Its prime minister, Saad Hariri, was born in Saudi Arabia and spent considerable time there, but was educated in a US university. In a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017, he surprisingly announced his resignation, citing fears of assassination (his father, Rafic Hariri, had been assassinated) due to the spread of Hezbollah in the Middle East. His father’s assassination was attributed to a Syrian plot with Hezbollah involvement. Rafic had had good relations with the Syria of Hafez Assad but the relationship soured when Bashir became president. The resignation was later rescinded. Iran initially suspected that the Saudis had pressured Hariri to quit his post.
I suspect that Hariri is the one who nixed Russian military cooperation. His ties to Saudi Arabia would militate against it and would make him very leery of Hezbollah, which has impressive political power in Lebanon. He would also balk at Russia’s close ties to Syria because of this father’s assassination (although he has a good relationship with Putin).
Whatever the case may be, Russia has, surprisingly, decided to start a working group with Israel to help stabilize the situation in Syria. According to Southfront:
“Putin also stressed that the normalization of the situation in Syria requires the full withdrawal of foreign armed forces from there and the restoration of statehood in full with the preservation of territorial integrity.”
I would respectfully disagree with Sheriff Putin on this. Putin has stated previously on more than one occasion that he respects the sovereignty of the Syrian people. If they are indeed sovereign, then they have the right to invite the Iranians into their country, even in a military capacity.
But on the other hand, if Putin can bring lasting peace to the Middle East, and particularly if he can tame the Israeli beast, and if compromising Syrian sovereignty is the only way to do this, then let’s wish him well and sit back and await the outcome of his decision. After all, nothing is set in stone and the situation could change in the future.