This is not the first time that the Russians have put their military assets into the service of their client states in the Middle East. In 1973, when Ariel Sharon’s division was encircling the Egyptian Third Army and Israeli units were 40km from Damascus, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene militarily if the Americans didn’t put the brakes on the Israeli advance.
There were even some reports of Soviet-Israeli skirmishes on the seas, and rumours of Soviet pilots in the skies. The great game of international spheres of influence would not allow Russia to accept an American client state [Israel] vanquishing its clients Anwar Sadat and Hafez Assad.
Now, in 2013, as Hafez Assad’s son Bashar seems to be gaining the upper hand in his war against his own people, largely thanks to massive Russian diplomatic, Iranian financial and Hezbollah military aid. Within this context, Russia’s Vladimir Putin does not want any outside power to come in and set Assad back, not America, Europe, NATO, Turkey or Israel. Russia will make a Libyan-style international intervention in Syria all but impossible by supplying Assad with the most advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles in the world, and by positioning its own warships off Syria’s coast and moored in Tartus. Russia’s announcement this week that it was sending destroyers to the region for the first time since the end of the Cold War, and will set up a Mediterranean Fleet serves several purposes:
Firstly, no outside intervention to topple Assad;
Second, if peace talks are launched, Assad will enter them in a strong position, whilst being entirely reliant on Moscow’s support;
Third, Russia has become the main power broker in the Middle East’s most pressing conflict. The long line of foreign dignitaries making a pilgrimage to Moscow over the past two weeks [Kerry, Netanyahu, Cameron, Ban] is impressive. Putin must be pleased. The fact that peace in Damascus runs through Moscow is a huge coup for him and Iran, and a loss of leverage for America, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
But above all, Putin’s pivot to the Middle East can be seen as a countermove to US President Barack Obama’s intention to pivot to Asia. If Obama wants to move into my backyard, I’ll move into the Levant, Putin is saying with his new Mediterranean fleet and his support for Assad and Iran. With the American plan to lessen its footprint in the region after two wars and a bunch of worsening headaches [Egypt is Islamising, Israel and the Palestinians will continue their dance macabre, Iran taking over Iraq, and no good options in Syria], Russia’s Putin senses an opportunity to fill the vacuum. Putin’s strategy could be to bog the US down in the Middle East, thus delaying or downgrading its pivot to Asia; as well as gaining new influence and resources in the Levant. Putin, a KGB man through-and-through, is playing the old great game as if the Cold War never ended. But now, America is weak at home, and weak abroad. The US financial crisis, and the rise of China, India, Brazil and others are levelling the playing field. Putin could have pulled off a brilliant strategic move here, or he could have committed a terrible blunder and one day find himself bogged down in the sectarian sands of Arabia, much like the Americans have been for over a decade. Time will tell.
For Israel, the emerging picture of Russian ascendance and waning American power in the region is not a good sign. Russia’s delivery of game-changing weapons to Assad [who already said he will give everything he has to Nasrallah] will pose an immediate question to Israeli leaders: Can they afford to strike these arms before they are delivered to their recipients [re still in Russian hands] or does the IDF wait for the weapons to be deployed before attempting to get at them? In other words, [in the famous words of Dr. Strangelove] Can Israel “go toe to toe with the Ruskies?” More generally, what does Russia’s new presence in the Mediterranean mean for the balance of power in the region, which is currently in Israel’s favor? If Putin has Assad’s back [and Khamenei's], just how much will Obama have Israel’s back?
Without a doubt Jerusalem would like to see a more determined American response to the Kremlin’s recent moves. Right now, all America has offered in response to Russia’s delivery of advanced weapons to Assad is a chide. America has a massive deficit at home, and its appetite for foreign adventures is understandably diminished. But can Obama afford to leave the field to Putin?