ANALYSIS: Who will side with whom if Syria explodes?

Tony Duheaume
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If anything is going to set off a major conflagration in Syria, it won’t be the recent bombing of Assad’s chemical plants by the US, UK and France, over his military’s use of chemical weapons, all indications are that the spark will come from Iran’s arrogant military activities.

With the Iranians controlling Lebanon’s borders through its proxy Hezbollah, plus having its troops and militias in virtual control of Iraq, the regime is now in the final stages of taking over Syria, with Bashar al-Assad confined to being the mullah’s puppet.

With Iran strengthening its position in Syria, it has left Israel up in arms over its arch enemy closing in on its borders, which leaves Russia fearful that its own plans for Syria might be in jeopardy, should Israel decide to intervene in a big way.

With Iran’s role in Lebanon already causing consternation with the Israelis, comments by Israeli Defence Force spokesman Brigadier Gen. Ronen Manelis, have made Israel’s position perfectly clear.

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On January 28, the day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to fly to Moscow, for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Manelis warned that a war with Israel would break out, should Iran develop precision missiles in Lebanon.

Then during Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin, the Israeli leader explained that one lesson learned from the Holocaust, was to “stand up to murderous ideologies”, but at the same time, he also made plain his desire for Israel and Russia to work together, in a bid to “promote security and stability in the region.”

Netanyahu also put over to Putin that he would not allow Lebanon to be turned into a site where precision missiles could be used against Israel, making it clear that any enemy acting against his country would pay a heavy price. But he also stated, how Israel was not seeking escalation, and at the same time, Netanyahu described Israel-Russian ties as “excellent”, leaving Putin in no doubt of Netanyahu’s position on Iran’s presence in the area.

But with Iranian convoys delivering military supplies to Hezbollah, coming under attack by Israeli jets, it made perfect sense for the Iranians to manufacture components for precision guided missiles on Lebanese soil, as the plan was for at some stage in the future, to use these weapons against Israel, which Netanyahu would have been fully aware of.

Russian Tapir class landing warship BSF Nikolay Filchenkov 152 passes the Bosphorus Strait off Istanbul on October 18, 2016, believed to be on its way to the Syrian port city of Tartus. (AFP)
Russian Tapir class landing warship BSF Nikolay Filchenkov 152 passes the Bosphorus Strait off Istanbul on October 18, 2016, believed to be on its way to the Syrian port city of Tartus. (AFP)

Permanent base

With Iranian troops backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Israel has vowed not to allow Iran’s military to set up permanent bases in the country, but with Assad relying on Iran and its proxy militias to prop up his depleted military forces, all indications are that Iran’s forces will be invited to have a permanent presence in the country.

As far as Iran and Israel are concerned, things began to hot up on Saturday 10 February, after Israel intercepted a drone that had penetrated its airspace from Syria, and shortly after, Israeli F-16 fighter jets attacked a command-and-control centre at the Tyas military base, near Palmyra – also known as the T-4 airbase - from where the Iranian drone had been launched.

Following the attack, one of the F-16 fighters came under heavy antiaircraft fire, and as a result, had crashed in northern Israel. In retaliation, the Israelis launched a series of strikes against several Syrian targets, and during these attacks, it is believed that as much as 50 per cent of Syrian air defences were destroyed.

Other targets struck, were Syrian government facilities involved in weapons development, and four Iranian positions that the Israelis described as “part of Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.”

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The shooting down of the F-16 was a tremendous blow to Israeli prestige, as this was the first time one of their fighter aircraft had been shot down in decades, and although both pilots had managed to bail out, one was seriously injured. In the aftermath of the attacks, the Russian President Vladimir Putin called for “all sides involved to show restraint and avoid all acts that could lead to complicating the situation further.”

When the US, UK and France carried out air strikes on 14th of April, over Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians in the Syrian town of Douma, it might have dented the dictator’s ability to produce such armaments, but it has in no way depleted his stocks of other insidious weapons such as barrel bombs, cluster bombs, vacuum bombs, or incendiary weapons.

But with coalition strikes having also targeted Damascus, a clear message was sent to both the Syrian and Iranian regimes, on how all three countries have the willingness and ability to attack any target within Syria, should the necessity arise, and with Donald Trump already voicing his opposition to Iran’s hegemonic desires, this was a wakeup call to Iran.

Putin addresses the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (AP)
Putin addresses the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (AP)

Tartus Port

Where Putin is concerned, he will climb mountains to keep Bashar Assad in power, as he desperately needs to retain his only puppet in the area, who at present is his only controllable asset in the region. He also needs the Syrian dictator left in place, to ensure an ongoing anchorage for his naval fleet in Tartus Port, allowing him to project force into the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Tartus is the only docks in the Mediterranean, where Putin’s navy can berth for repairs and refuel without sailing back to Russia, which makes it strategically important, in furthering his goal of restoring Russia as a global player.

But Putin also needs to maintain long-term contracts in Syria, to secure the use of Hmeimim Air Base, which houses the headquarters of Russia’s military operations, making it also strategically valuable to Russia’s military expansion in the region. This air base in north-western Latakia province, is not only located deep in Syrian government-held territory, it is also situated within the Tartus port complex.

But after a sustained mortar attack showered missiles on Hmeimim base, on 31 December 2017, Putin was the one to receive a wakeup call, after some reports that were denied by Moscow, suggested that seven warplanes had been put out of action, including two of its premier Su-35 fighter jets and four Su-24 attack aircraft.

ALSO READ: US suggests Russia, Syria may tamper with Douma evidence, Moscow denies it

Then a week later, on 6 January, Syrian rebels had managed to attack Hmeimim with a swarm of 13 drones, which had descended on the base from an unknown location, and although they had been neutralised before causing any damage, it proved that the base was vulnerable to attack.

Putin is a realist, even though President Trump has instigated missile attacks against Assad’s chemical weapons facilities, and imposed extra sanctions on Russia, as punishment for backing Assad, which has the potential of costing Russian businesses billions of dollars, with the loss of somewhere in the region of 100,000 jobs, Putin realizes that the US doesn’t want to go to war against him.

So, if he wishes to keep Assad in power, he will need to improve ties with the Trump administration, even if it means sacrificing Iran. But as far as any climbdown with the US is concerned, Putin cannot have it perceived as a humiliating retreat back home, as this would shrink his popularity with his adoring supporters, who see him as the powerful strongman who has brought pride to their country, allowing Russia to become a serious player on the world stage.

A balancing act

Through a careful balancing act within Syria, Putin has done his best to put over a powerful image for Russia, without too much upset to other world leaders, but Iran’s stance in the conflict has left him with grave concerns. Where Russia is concerned, even before recent sanctions were put in place, it was already limping its way through a stiff recession, brought about by earlier sanctions put in place over its aggressive actions in the Ukraine conflict.

Due to the state of the Russian economy, Putin cannot afford a military action against the US, and with Trump making it quite clear that America was only in Syria for the short term, Putin realizes he would eventually have to make some form of deal with Trump, if he is to retain his foothold in Syria.

Putin’s alliance with Iran has always been an uncomfortable one, as Putin would prefer to see peace in Syria, with Assad eventually left in place as leader, and some form of stability brought to bear through a peace settlement. But as far as Iran is concerned, Syria is just another step towards its hegemonic control of the region, leaving it a step closer to confronting its arch enemy Israel.

With Iran’s policy of hegemony led by Qassem Suleimani, a leader no longer in step for what Putin envisages in Syria, the Quds Force commander is spearheading Iran’s expansionist policies in the region, as not only did the IRGC force create the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, it also supplies it with the latest hi tech weaponry, and has taught it asymmetric tactics to aid it in its fight against Israel.

But in the long run, Iran is playing a very dangerous game, as by flaunting its ability to be able to strike at Israel more effectively from close to its borders, large scale wars cost money. With the wars that Iran is already involved in, namely Syria, Iraq and Yemen, plus its support of various Shiite terror groups in the region, it has brought its country to its knees.

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With its currency the rial having lost one-third of its value this year alone, the Iranian people are paying the price through economic hardship for its leader’s foreign policy, and thousands have now begun to demonstrate on the streets.

Throughout his involvement in the Syrian conflict, Putin has done his utmost to smooth his path with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the Russian leader is looking ahead towards peace and stability in the area, and it is only Iran and its proxy militias that are most likely to wreck it.

So, with Iran threatening a retaliatory strike against Israel over its attack on its T-4 airbase, this will most likely come in the form of a missile salvo launched from Syria. But not only will this bring down the full wrath of the Israeli war machine on Iranian assets, it is certain to cause a major escalation in the war, and should it turn into a full-blown conflict between Israel and Iran, the United States is certain to step in to support Israel.

With Putin stuck in the middle, he would realize that standing by Iran would scupper his ambitions in the region, and also wreck Russia’s fragile economy. So, his best bet, would be to either take a step back, or to stand by Israel, just as the Russian Deputy Ambassador to Israel Leonid Frolov had said he would in an interview in February.

By doing so, Putin would earn some brownie points from Trump, and when the smoke fades, he would be more likely to keep his bases in Syria, and using his “dogma of flexibility to gain new allies” in the region, he would be able to keep Assad in power, while peace wrecker Iran would be out in the cold.