by Prof. Eyal Zisser
Putin's involvement in Syria once again situates him as an indispensable player on the international stage, regardless of whether he saves Assad or not.
Earlier than expected, Russia has returned to the Middle East to fill the void left behind by the United States. To anyone who eulogized Russia as a global power because of the painful economic sanctions imposed on it by the U.S. and Europe; to anyone who believed the Kremlin's adventures in the Ukraine would limit its global maneuverability, Vladimir Putin is proving quite clearly that he hasn't lost his power. In Saudi Arabia and in Egypt, the Russians are signing weapons deals worth tens of billions of dollars, and in Iran as well. And here they are now, making a return to Syria, which for many years was its main stronghold in the Middle East.
Russia never abandoned Syrian President Bashar Assad, lavishing him with weapons and funds even in his bleakest days. Such direct involvement though, which includes the deployment of soldiers and pilots to Syria, is undoubtedly a dramatic escalation even for Russia, not to mention surprising. This involvement points first and foremost to a sense of confidence and power, without which Putin would have never upped the Russian ante in Syria. Only a self-assured leader can order a military involvement of this sort in such a problematic and volatile region, all while openly disregarding the Americans.
Does Putin truly believe he can save Assad? This isn't the question he's asking himself. His involvement in Syria once again situates him as a primary, and indispensable, player on the international stage, which in turn affects Russia's standing in other parts of the world where it is also active, like Europe and the Far East.
Therefore, even if Assad falls, the Russian presence in Syria is liable to continue. Indeed, Russia has set up camp along the Alawite coast, a defensible enclave with a majority Alawite population from where the regime will muster its final battle for survival. From Russia's perspective, therefore, this is a long-term investment.
We must also recognize that for Putin, Syria is a front line of defense against the spread of radical Islam, which will eventually reach Russia's doorstep if it is not curbed. In light of the U.S.-led coalition's failure to stop the Islamic State group, the Russians are looking to present an alternative of their own by showing they are more than willing to be aggressive where the U.S. has been tentative -- by putting their troops and pilots on the ground in Syria. One day the Americans will thank the Russians, a consideration that Moscow and Washington have also taken into account.
Most regretful, however, is that beyond Russia's increased presence in Syria, American bankruptcy and powerlessness in the Middle East is on full display. Russia is simply not worried about the U.S. It certainly isn't heeding the Americans' limp warnings that openly intervening in Syria's civil war could lead to a clash with America's local allies among the rebel groups, or with American fighter jets operating in Syrian skies.
What are the implications for Israel? In contrast to the 1970s, Russia is not an enemy of Israel and its presence in Syria is not designed to help Assad -- or Iran and Hezbollah down the road -- fight Israel. The Russians have no quarrel with Israel, but at the same time they are unperturbed if advanced weaponry, the likes of which it is selling for good money to Iran and Syria, hurts Israel. Active Russian intervention in Syria will undoubtedly hamper Israel, which up to now has customarily bombed targets in Syria any time it suspected the Syrians of transferring advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
Perhaps the Russians won't be able to save Assad, but they are turning Syria into an important stronghold in their worldwide campaign, whether against global jihad or as part of the renewed clash with the United States. It would be wise for Israel to stay on the sidelines in this regard, certainly as long as the U.S. itself continues to employ a policy of inaction in Syria.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
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