Russia Returns to the Middle East
By Israel Shamir
September 26, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" -
These autumn days are the most important in
the Middle East calendar. The Muslims celebrate Eid al Adha, the
Feast of the Sacrifice; the Jews fast at Yom Kippur, the Day of
Atonement; and the Eastern Orthodox Christians rejoice at Nativity
of Our Lady Mary. It appears, surprisingly, the best place to be at
this time is Moscow, where Putin received in quick succession the
Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, the Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas and the Turkish ruler Recep Erdogan.
They did not come for the lovely Indian summer
that blessed Moscow this week, not for the yellow and red leaves
covering the maple and birch trees, though this sumptuous new Xanadu
is quite fetching this time of the year; its streets refashioned at
enormous expense, parks tended by best gardeners; bicycle paths and
sidewalks repaved and even its feared traffic jams abated somewhat.
Ostensibly, Abbas and Erdogan came to unveil,
together with Putin, the grand new Cathedral Mosque of Moscow, a
vast and opulent structure where ten thousand worshippers can pray
at once. This city has more Muslims than many a Muslim city has;
about two millions of its 14 million dwellers are nominal Muslims.
They unveiled the mosque all right, and used this
occasion for a good lengthy talk with Putin. So did Benjamin
Netanyahu, the Israeli PM, who gave a miss to the mosque. And he
came with his top brass: the head of staff and the head of military
intelligence, after a long-time no-see.
This sudden interest to Moscow is a sign that the
Russian entry into the Syrian fray has been playing to a full house.
When, some three weeks ago I reported on this decision of Kremlin,
my report was met with great doubt, to say the least. Could it be
that Russia, after being licked in the Ukraine, will venture that
far from home? They were supposed to sulk in the Kremlin under the
heavy load of sanctions, not roam around. Now the facts on the
ground had justified my previous report. Russian soldiers and
marines, Russian weapons, jets and boats are seen on the shore; they
are building a new base and fighting the enemy, giving a new lease
of life to the embattled Syrian state.
The rumours of Russian demise and of Syrian
collapse has been somewhat premature. Putin’s push for peace in the
Ukraine (so condemned by hotheads) allowed him to stabilise Donbass.
Half a million refugees poured back into this fertile and developed
region, the Russian Ruhr. After calm in Donbass was established,
Putin’s hands were free to act elsewhere, and he did.
Resilient Russia came back into the Middle East,
and that’s an unexpected fact. Unexpected, as for a few years it
seemed that the Russians lost interest in the Middle East. They were
busy elsewhere: trying to make friends with Europe, staging the
Olympics, and then keeping out of the Ukrainian trouble as much as
they could. And then the US troops and tanks were stationed on the
Russian border in the Baltic states, a few hours’ drive to St
Petersburg. Only in the last moment, when the Syrian collapse seemed
a matter of weeks if not days away, the Russians woke up and rode to
save their ally Bashar al-Assad.
This move has changed the rules of the game. The
US became interested in Russia again, and President Obama asked for
a meeting with President Putin during his visit on September 28,
2015 to New York for the UN General Assembly Jubilee 70th
Session. Just a few days ago such a meeting was completely out of
The US plans to dispose of Syria as they find fit
were thrown to disarray by the Russian involvement. So were plans of
Qatar and the Saudis. A new reality began to be informed, not a
moment too early.
Putin’s meeting with Recep Erdogan of Turkey came
in a crucial moment. Turkey is a net victim of the Syrian crisis,
despite being a contributor to its gravity. Erdogan believed the
Americans and the Europeans who told him that Bashar Assad will fall
in a few weeks. He accepted and invited Syrian refugees to his
country, established huge camps for refugees, provided for them. Now
Turkey has 2 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and has spent eight
billion dollars caring for them. This burden is a main reason for
recent electoral defeat of Erdogan and his party: the refugee
operation is just too costly and ruinous for the not-too-robust
The US proposal for Turkey to join the US-led
coalition has been hesitantly accepted, but quickly it became clear
that this road leads nowhere. The Turkish plans to establish a
no-fly zone near the Syrian-Turkish border triggered the Russian
involvement, for after its implementation, Bashar Assad and the
Syrian state would be beyond saving. After the Russian decision, the
Turks lost any way out.
They reacted by letting loose the wave of refugees
upon Europe. The Europeans were rather upset, but they have to
regret their own actions. They pushed for removal of Bashar Assad,
supported anti-Assad fractions, and did not want to pay for the
refugee stay in Turkey. The Turks could not keep all two million
refugees pent up in their country without considerable support of
Europe, and such support was not forthcoming. So the Turks allowed
the Europeans to feel the stream of refugees on their own skin.
Probably we can add that the US did not object to
the Turkish letting off the steam. The US ruling elites always
thought that European countries are too homogeneous, and some
dilution by immigrants will make them more similar to the US in
While in Moscow, President Erdogan called
President Putin his “dear brother”, a title usually reserved to the
kings of the region and close allies. His officials for the first
time ever mouthed the main idea of Putin: any arrangement in Syria
should be made with President Bashar Assad. Please remember that
even a few days ago, before the Russians stepped in, the Turks were
adamantly sticking to the American mantra “Assad must go”.
Now this important mental barrier was taken;
Erdogan and Putin renewed their discussion of the South Stream gas
pipeline that was frozen for a few months. The negotiations weren’t
completed, but it seems that things began moving.
Israelis and Palestinians
For Israel the Russian involvement meant that
their old freedom of bombing whomever they feel like is over, or at
least has been restricted. It is one thing to bomb practically
defenceless Syrians, as Israelis did a dozen times for last year,
and quite a different thing to operate jets within lidless eyesight
of the S-300 radar and Su-27 interceptors with the Russian aces in
the cockpits. That’s why Netanyahu took himself to Moscow on the eve
of Yom Kippur.
Netanyahu came to deliver an ultimatum of his own.
The Russians, and their allies, Assad, Iran and Hezbollah have to
choose whether they intend to save Bashar Assad or to fight Israel.
Both missions can’t be accomplished. If they fight Israel, Israel
will destroy Assad.
Putin said that they do not intend to fight
Israel. Assad is in such a poor shape that he can’t fight Israel.
Even saving him alone is hard enough as he controls between 20% and
30% of the national territory, though it is most populated part of
Syria, while the rest of the territory is mainly desert.
Netanyahu claimed his freedom to bomb Iranians and
Hezbollah wherever it suits him. He is still obsessed with Iran, as
Iranians, in his view, re-arm Hezbollah, modernise Hezbollah’s
weaponry, and plan to open a second front against Israel on the
Golan Heights. While first two claims may be true, the third one is
a sheer invention.
Netanyahu is worried that the advanced Russian
weapons may find its way to Lebanon, and this will limit Israel’s
God-given right to bomb Lebanon. The Russians do not want their
advanced weapons to leak out of Syria, either, so there is no great
disagreement between them and the Israelis. However, while Israelis
say such leakage occurs, the Russians deny that vehemently. Now, and
at their previous encounter, the Israeli leader claimed he knows
(“trust me!”) that the most advanced Russian weapons found its way
to Lebanon, while Putin dismissed the claim as an unproven one.
It seems that Netanyahu still smarts for a fight.
The American president refused him his innocent wish to destroy Iran
and made the agreement with his archenemy. Even worse, as we learned
from his former Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Netanyahu’s generals
also rebelled against Bibi’s plans to attack Iran. But Netanyahu
does not give up. He seeks to destroy Iran or at least Hezbollah,
the most potent fighting force in the area.
Israel is much stronger than Hezbollah, and it has
no reason to be afraid of Hezbollah’s attack. If Israel does not
attack, nobody attacks Israel. But this MAD-like equation is not
acceptable for Netanyahu: he seeks immunity and impunity for his
strikes. Hezbollah denies him this impunity and can demand a heavy
price for a new bombing campaign.
At Netanyahu’s request, the Russians and the
Israelis agreed to establish a hotline between their militaries in
order to minimise the chance of their hostile encounter. This is a
normal practice: such a hotline functioned in 1974 between warring
Israel and Egypt during the cease-fire so a local shoot-out will not
escalate into an unwanted general conflagration.
This is not cooperation, not joint planning, not
an arrangement between the allies. Just a device to prevent unwanted
firefights. And it is a good thing. Israel and Russia can’t be
allies: they pursue mutually opposing aims and their allies are
quite different. Israel befriended Jabhat an Nusra, a Syrian branch
of al Qaeda, an extremist Sunni group. Two thousand Nusra fighters
received medical treatment in Israel and returned to fight Assad.
Israel is moderately hostile to Bashar Assad, bombed the Syrian
Army’s positions and attacked their bases with the help of the
Nusra. Israel is implacably hostile to Russia’s allies in Syria,
Iran and Hezbollah, and is quite indifferent to Da’esh (ISIS).
That’s why the talk of Russian-Israeli alliance in Syria is just an
attempt to mislead you.
However, President Putin is very friendly to
Israel and to Jews. His friendship will not cause him to surrender
Syria or to break up with Iran, but even the greatest friend of
Israel on this planet, the US, is mindful of its own interests. At
many occasions Putin promised to save the Jews if things will go
utterly wrong for them. It seems he has in mind a mass evacuation of
Israeli Jews to Russia as the last resort, like Russia did for the
Polish Jews in 1939 thus saving millions of them from the Nazi fury.
Needless to say we are very far away from such an apocalyptic
It seems Putin has some close personal friends
among the Russians in Israel, for he often stresses that the 1.5
million strong Russian community in Israel (actually, about 0.5
million at the best) is the bridge and the guarantee of their
friendship. He made a generous present of some 5 billion roubles (90
million dollars) per annum to the Russian Jews in Israel for their
pension fund. (The US gives much more, but mainly for weapons, and
it goes to Israeli generals).
Putin received Netanyahu warmly, as his old-time
friend. So was Netanyahu, who indicated that he is tired of
Americans. Putin did not take this ball: he did not believe
Netanyahu is likely to ditch the US and run away with the Russkies
to the hayloft. But both enthused in their friendly vibes. Putin
wished Bibi to be inscribed in the Book of Life, showing an
unexpected knowledge of Jewish customs.
Putin and Jews
Putin is so friendly with the Jews in Russia that
the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the Russian Jews never
had it that good. He allows the Chabad Hassids to build anew the
Jewish community in Russia, as the old one disintegrated after mass
emigration to Israel and as a result of assimilation and
intermarriage. In Moscow alone, they build thirty synagogues
(comparing with just two mosques and some three hundred churches),
though there are just a few hundred synagogue-going Jews in the
whole of Moscow, at best.
The Chabad imports Jewish families from Israel,
from the US and from Europe, and they are frequently seen around
town in their distinctive garb. It remains to be seen whether they
plan to establish a new Jewish community, or use it for a big-time
real estate grab, as some people claim. Practically in every Russian
city there is a synagogue and a community centre on the most
desirable and expensive plot of land established and run by the
Chabad, while traditional Jewish communities were dispossessed by
the Chabad and disappeared.
Is Putin so Jews-friendly because he thinks it is
a good strategy? Perhaps. Even now he is often described in the
Western media as a new Hitler, how much worse it would be if the
Jews in Russia or Israel would consider him an enemy. On the other
hand, he can be sincere, as he read law in St Petersburg U and had
had many Jewish friends. He also worked with the mayor of St
Petersburg who had many Jews in his entourage. His choice of Chabad
is not so easy to justify, but perhaps they were prepared to build
Jewish life while staying away from politics.
His good relations with Netanyahu cause him no
harm, either. Netanyahu is still a very powerful man, able to summon
a majority in the US Senate, and an ally of Saudi Arabia, the
strongman of the Arab world. Putin’s manners are
non-confrontational; a Judo master, he does not argue with his
opponent, rarely voices his disagreement. Thus he agreed with
Netanyahu’s proposal of the hotline, or a joint commission of the
military. I doubt this commission will be fruitful. If Bibi will
forewarn the Russians of his planned attacks on the Syrian
positions, the attacks will be useless; still the commission and the
hotline will reduce the danger of unintentional confrontation.
Almost immediately after meeting with Netanyahu,
Putin also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This
meeting was also very friendly. Abbas told him of the trouble around
Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where Jewish religious fanatics play
havoc and cause confrontations. He mentioned the seizure of
Christian lands near Beit Jalla and other multiple troubles,
including new Israeli licence to shoot Palestinian children with
live fire of 0.22 calibre. Abbas encouraged Putin to save Syria from
disintegration, and heard Putin’s explanation of Russian plans. It
appears that Mahmoud Abbas will not retire and return the keys of
the PNA at the UN General Assembly in a few days, as some observers
expected, though this is not final yet.
This double meeting raised the Russian diplomacy
to a new level. Until now, only American presidents were able to
meet both Israeli and Palestinians in a friendly way and extend
their patronage. Now Russia graduated to this supreme position, and
that is certainly a great achievement of Putin, already justifying
his decision to engage in Syria.
In the follow up, we shall deal with
Russian-American discussion of Syrian crisis and see what they say
to each other.
Israel Shamir can be reached on
This article was published first at
The Unz Review