Provoking Russia

Israel’s set-up in the skies over Latakia could prove to be a big mistake 

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Following the accidental downing of a Russian military reconnaissance plane off Latakia and the killing of the 15 crew members who were on board, and the signing of the Idlib peace accord entailing the creation of a buffer zone and withdrawal of opposition factions’ heavy weapons, eyes are turned to three main issues:

      First, the state of the ‘special’ relationship between Russia and Israel after the downing of the plane, for which Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu held Tel Aviv fully responsible and threatened retaliation.

      Secondly, the future of the Idlib peace deal signed at Sochi by the Russian and Turkish presidents, its prospects of success or failure, and the implications if things go either way.

      Third, the extent to which this accident affects political relations between Russia and Syria, for better or worse.

On the first point, it can be said that Russian-Israeli relations are set for a period of tension, in light of the Russian defence ministry statement and Israel’s failure to issue an apology for the role its warplanes played in deliberately luring the plane into the path of Syrian air defence missiles, or for failing to give it sufficient notice so it could leave the area.

President Putin is not an impetuous decision-maker. Previous experience, especially the November 2015 downing of a Russian Sukhoi jet by a Turkish F-16, shows that he takes his time to respond. But in the end, he gets the price he wants, which is much more than an apology – in this case, prizing Turkey away from NATO and causing tension in its relations with the US.

Arab public opinion, which is overwhelmingly favourable towards Putin, has been strongly critical of him for not shooting down the four Israeli warplanes that violated Syrian airspace and raided military targets near the Russian airbase at Hmeimim, or at least one of them, either by confronting them directly or by giving the Syrian army S-300 or S-400 missiles.

Israel played a dirty trick on its Russian ‘ally’, showed contempt for its reaction, and embarrassed its leadership in front of its people and allies. We do not believe these provocations will be left unpunished, at a minimum by restricting its military activity in Syria in one way or another.

As for the second issue, the Sochi agreement on Idlib, its prospects of success appear limited. It may have postponed the Syrian-Russian military solution for Idlib for a few weeks and given the Turkish president the time he wants to search for a peaceful solution.  But it will not ultimately prevent it. An assault to restore Idlib to Syrian sovereignty may be inevitable.

Looking back at previous comparable experiences in Syria, it can be said that Russia pursues a policy of stages. It came up with the de-escalation agreements at the Astana conference and briefly implemented them in four parts of the country: Ghouta, Deraa, Aleppo and Idlib. But at the end of the day, it put them aside and resorted to the military solution in the first three cases. We do not believe the Idlib area will be an exception.

In the latest agreement, President Erdogan agreed to take some steps that are replete with risks, such as separating the terrorist-designated factions from those described as moderate and disarming them of their heavy weapons. These commitments are hard to achieve on the ground. The Tahrir ash-Sham organisation and the factions allied to it have declared their refusal to surrender its heavy weapons. They have hunkered down in the heart of the city and at strategic locations in preparation for resistance. Moreover, it is doubtful that there is enough time to set up the proposed buffer zone by the 10 October deadline. So will Erdogan use military force to meet this challenge? 

The Russians are secretly banking on the Turks failing in Idlib. They have been telling their Syrian counterparts: ‘It does us no harm to agree to the Turks’ plan aimed at gaining time and to a cease-fire. Even if the deal collapses, we will have regained a 20km-wide area without firing a single bullet, and obtained Turkish legitimation for launching a military assault. We have placed the bomb in their hands and are sitting and waiting. A military solution is ultimately unavoidable.’

On the third point, it was noteworthy that there was no phone call between Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and his Russian counterpart after the plane downing incident. This was confirmed by Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov. Our own informed sources say the Syrians and Iranians were shocked to realise the extent of operational coordination between Russia and Israel in Syria, and also at the failure of Russia’s air defences to counter the Israeli planes that flow close to their airbase.

The reason there was no phone contact between the Russian and Syrian president could be that they are awaiting a face-to-face meeting for an in-depth discussion about Israel’s repeated airstrikes on Syria, of which there have been 210 in the past 18 months. Alternatively, a high-level Russian military delegation may come to Damascus. The Syrians think it is high time they were provided with advanced air defence missiles that could shoot down Israeli jets that violate their country’s airspace. 

It could turn out that the latest Israeli raid on Syria military targets in the Latakia area has done more good than harm  — both in terms of causing a rift in Russian-Israeli relations and of strengthening the tripartite Russian-Iranian-Turkish partnership.

 The statements made on Wednesday by Erdogan’s advisor Yasin Aktay to the Anadol news agency are telling in this regard. He accused Israel of trying to sabotage the positive climate that has developed in Idlib and said it was intent on weakening and destabilising the country and keeping the war and killing going regardless whether it is ruled by Asad or anyone else. This means a lot coming from an aide who does not say much in public about Syria and is considered to be one of the hawks in Erdogan’s office over the Syrian dossier.

Many surprises can be expected in the weeks to come in the five-way interaction between Syria, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran. And we do not think they will favourable to Tel Aviv. By setting up the Russian plane to be shot down, and by treating Putin arrogantly and high-handedly, it may have made one of its biggest mistakes. 

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