Understanding Putin’s push into Syria

Sep 25, 2015

Understanding Putin's push into Syria

Update from AIJAC

Sept. 25, 2015
Number 09/15 #05

Today’€™s Update concentrates on the potentially game-changing Russian movement of forces into Syria, ostensibly to prop up the Assad regime in its battle against ISIS.

First up, Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy examines why Russia is concentrating its forces in Syria’s Latakia region. He notes that demographics are changing in the area, to the extent that the Alawites, Assad’s own people, are no longer in the majority, and concludes that this concerns the Russians because they aim to establish a permanent military base in the area. For this interesting strategic analysis, CLICK HERE. Jeff White, also of the Washington Institute, looks at the military implications of this move. It should be noted that this piece was written prior to the visit to Moscow by Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently agreed that Israel could continue to target arms transfers to Hezbollah. The visit is analysed by the Washington Institute’s David Makovsky.

Next, Reid Standish of Foreign Policy reports on the history of relations between Russia under Putin and Israel, culminating in the recent Putin-Netanyahu meeting. He notes that while Netanyahu may have had some concerns ameliorated by the meeting, the concessions made suit Putin’s ambition to consolidate Russia as a power in the Middle East. He also notes that Russia will continue to act against Israel’s interests by, for example, supplying Israel’s enemies, when it suits it to do so. To see this interesting context, CLICK HERE. Lee Smith, in the Weekly Standard, sets out the long history of inaction on Syria by the Obama Administration, leading among other things to Russia’s strengthened position, while the Wall Street Journal notes that Putin’s strategy in Syria has already worked so well that it’s ending Russia’s diplomatic isolation since his Ukraine intervention, with Barack Obama agreeing to meet with him.

Finally, Charles Krauthammer in the National Post writes that while the White House may be ‘€œstumped’ by Putin’s strategy in Syria, his aims may be cynical but they’re ‘œblindingly obvious’, and include making Russia the dominant outside power in the Middle East, buttressing its ally, expanding its own military, pushing out the Americans and re-establishing Russia’s own legitimacy. To read this explanation of how Putin hopes to achieve these aims, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • Jennifer Rubin catalogues some of the problems in the Middle East caused or exacerbated by Obama Administration policies and asks, “Who can reverse Obama’s Middle East debacle?’.
  • Jonathan Tobin points out that the Iran deal is already making Israel’s security situation worse.
  • Evelyn Gordon sets out three ‘œresounding and damaging failures’ the BDS campaign has suffered in the past month.
  • Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
    • Sharyn Mittelman sets out some of the problems with new British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
    • Links to media appearances by recent AIJAC guest, former US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams.
    • Links to media appearances by recent AIJAC guests UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer and Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid.


Latakia Is Assad’s Achilles Heel

Fabrice Balanche

Washington Institute POLICYWATCH 2489, September 23, 2015

In light of its large Sunni population, the coastal city and its environs are not secure for the Syrian regime, possibly explaining why Russian forces are concentrating there.

Over the past few months, the Syrian army has grown weaker and lost many positions, a development that explains Russia’s recent deployment of troops. Previously, Russia had sent only military advisors and technical staff to support the Syrian army. Another key question, however, involves why these troops are being sent to Latakia and not Tartus, site of the official Russian military base. Indeed, this new, strong Russian presence along the northern Syrian coast can be explained by the Assad regime’s weakness in the area, where Alawites no longer constitute a majority.


In 2010, the population of Latakia was about 400,000, about 50 percent of whom were Alawite, 40 percent were Sunni, and 10 percent were Christian — mostly Orthodox. Geographically, Alawites occupy the northern and eastern suburbs, whereas Sunnis live downtown and in the southern suburb of al-Ramel al-Filistini, the city’s poorest area. Christians inhabit what is known as the American district, named for an American-established Protestant school. In this historically Sunni city, Alawites are still considered by the old urban dwellers to be foreigners. Up until the French Mandate, which began in 1920, the city had no Alawite residents at all, except household servants. More than two decades later, in 1945, Alawites constituted only 10 percent of the population, living in a poor suburb called al-Ramel al-Shemali. A dramatic demographic shift, however, was encouraged by President Hafiz al-Assad’s policy of “Alawitization,” which led Alawites to become a majority by the 1980s.

The countryside around Latakia is likewise divided between Sunni and Alawite villages. Traveling north toward Turkey along the Latakia-al-Haffah-Salma line, one finds a majority of Sunnis, according to the 2004 census — about 80,000 of the 140,000 residents. In particular, the subdistricts of Rabia and Qastal Maaf are mostly Sunni (Turkmen), as are the coastal villages of Burj Islam and Salib al-Turkman. Since the crisis began in 2011, the Turkmens of Rabia and Qastal Maaf have joined the armed opposition, whereas Turkmens from Burj Islam and Salib al-Turkman, surrounded by Alawite villages, have preferred to stay neutral. To the east of Latakia, the northern part of Jabal al-Ansariyya (Alawite Mountain), including al-Haffah, its surrounding villages, and Jabal al-Akrad (Kurds Mountain), is also Sunni-dominated. Even though the residents of Jabal al-Akrad are of Kurdish origin, dating to the Middle Ages, none of them speak Kurdish any longer and the area is considered effectively Arab. Since spring 2012, Jabal al-Akrad has been a rebel stronghold. That July, al-Haffah was occupied briefly by rebels coming from Jabal al-Akrad, but the population did not join them for fear of incurring government retaliation.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Latakia city is now hosting 200,000 internally displaced persons, along with 100,000 more IDPs elsewhere in the province. Most are Sunnis from Idlib and Aleppo. Alawites go to Alawite villages and Sunnis to Sunni areas, the result being an increase since 2011 in Sunni representation along the Latakia-al-Haffah-Salma line. Indeed, by now, most Sunni women and children residents of Jabal al-Akrad and the Rabia subdistrict have fled to Turkey, where they are living as refugees. Most of the men, however, are fighting against the Syrian army.


Since spring 2012, the armed opposition has controlled Jabal al-Akrad and the area along the Turkish border, up to the Armenian village of Kassab. In March 2014, jihadist groups, coming partly from Turkey, invaded Kassab and destroyed the Russian radar station atop Jabal Aqra. But, unable to progress southward, they left Kassab that June. To the west of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour, and Ariha, a geographical continuum exists between Jabal al-Akrad and the northwestern rebel zone, posing a real threat to regime control in Latakia. This is why Syrian president Bashar al-Assad created a new militia, the “Shield of the Coast,” belonging to the National Defense Army. The specific goal is to protect the Syrian coast with young Alawites who have refused to fight outside the Alawite area. Assad needs to show he is protecting “Alawistan,” unless he wants Alawite soldiers to take matters into their own hands and renounce their government support. During July and August 2015, the rebel offensive in the al-Ghab plain threatened Latakia and the underpopulated Alawite villages in northern Jabal al-Ansariyya.

Given all these dynamics, the risk of a Sunni uprising in Latakia still exists. The Sunni suburb of al-Ramel al-Filistini has been surrounded by the Syrian army since the August 2011 uprising, and many residents are awaiting the right moment to act.


For the rebels, gaining access to the sea is both strategic and symbolic. The al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), traveling from Kassab, reached the Mediterranean in just a few days. The new “Conquest Army” (Jaish al-Fatah), also headed by JN, would very much like to control a major port like Latakia or Tartus. The case for Latakia, from this perspective, is comparatively strong. To begin with, the road to Latakia is more accessible than the Tartus road. In addition, Tartus — as contrasted with Latakia — is a true Alawite city, with Alawites constituting 80 percent of the population, along with 10 percent Sunnis and 10 percent Christians. Moreover, the population residing between Tartus and Homs is predominantly Alawite, with a strong Christian minority (e.g., in Safita and Wadi al-Nasara). In the countryside surrounding Tartus, Sunnis are concentrated around al-Hamidiyah and Talkalakh. Complicating other jihadist roads to the sea are Hezbollah and the Syrian army, which are stiffly controlling the Lebanese border to prevent any coordination between Sunnis in Syria and the Sunni Akkar district and Tripoli. This strategy was exemplified by the al-Qusayr battle in May 2013.

Currently, Damascus and Homs are being protected by Hezbollah and other Shiite militias. Holding this territory is essential for the regime, Hezbollah, and their Iranian backers. Meanwhile, Latakia represents less of a strategic interest for Iran, as contrasted with Russia, which wants to maintain a presence along the coast more than in Damascus or the Golan Heights. Toward this end, the Russian navy still holds its base in Tartus and plans to rebuild the former Soviet submarine base in Jableh, some twenty miles south of Latakia. With the aim of bolstering a future Alawite state on the Syrian coast, whether it extends to Damascus or not, Russia is also fortifying its position along the southern Turkish border, with the ultimate goal of preventing Sunni Syrian forces from gaining access to the sea.


Given the rebels’ spring offensive near Idlib, a real possibility exists that the civil war will reach Latakia. A rebel army could find strong support from Sunni residents, many of whom have long dreamed of revenge for regime efforts to impose Alawite control over the city. After the April 2015 fall of Jisr al-Shughour, fear overtook the Alawite population, and some families fled for Jabal al-Ansariyya, which is considered more secure than Latakia, whose refugees’ loyalty to the government can hardly be assessed.

Many Russians are living in Latakia, and they understand very well the sectarian problem facing the city and countryside alike. As for the influx of Russian troops, they are needed to protect the city given the present weakness of Syrian forces. If the rebels succeed in taking all or part of the city, rooting them out would be extremely difficult. Such a takeover would challenge the Russian path forward, perhaps modeled on Abkhazia, the territory that now exists almost entirely independent of Georgia thanks to Russian protection — and that fits the Russian practice of grooming microstates on its periphery to serve as military bases. A Russian-backed Alawistan, should it become viable, would provide many of the advantages of a real state, including complete dependence on Russia, without the same costs.

For his part, Assad has no better choice than to accept a strong Russian role in the coastal region. His army can no longer defend Latakia, which faces the prospect of a rebel offensive strongly supported by Turkey. Nor can Assad defend Damascus without the support of Hezbollah and Iran. Western and Gulf countries have long counted on the possibility that a weakened Syrian army and Assad’s eventual overthrow could allow for an imposed political transition, but this plan did not account for direct Russian intervention or, should Damascus come under threat, direct intervention from Iran.

From the French perspective, continued bombardments against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, will continue to be carried out in the name of self-defense, given that recent terrorist attacks perpetrated in France seem to have been planned in Syria. France will thus be loath to deny the Russians their efforts on the ground in Syria, also officially to fight terrorism. Other Europeans will be compelled to take a similar view of the Russians, who by sending troops to an Alawite area will also appear, in concrete terms, to be protecting Middle East minorities and not just organizing conferences such as the one held by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius earlier this month.

Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute.

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Moscow Relishes Revamped Role in Mideast as Israel Seeks Assurances in Syria

Reid Standish

Foreign Policy, September 21, 2015

The last time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Moscow was in 2013 for a two-pronged mission: to lobby against a nuclear deal with Iran and convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to cancel the planned sale of advanced Russian air defense systems to Tehran. Netanyahu was unable to change Putin’s mind on the Iran deal, but the visit postponed the delivery of the Russian weaponry.

On Monday, with Russia once again in a position to impact Israeli security in the Middle East, Netanyahu returned to Moscow. Only this time, the stakes were considerably higher: The Iran deal has been signed, and the Kremlin is building up its military in northwestern Syria to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime and fight the Islamic State.

“Iran and Syria have been arming the extremist Islamic terrorist organization Hezbollah with advanced weapons, aimed at us, and over the years thousands of rockets and missiles have been fired against our cities,’ Netanyahu said before his three-hour meeting with Putin.

Israel fears the Kremlin’s buildup could further escalate the Syrian civil war and embolden Iran and Hezbollah, its two greatest foes in the Middle East, both of which have joined Moscow in supporting Damascus. Amid uncertainty over Russia’s role in Syria, Netanyahu’s visit is meant to prevent a scenario in which the Israeli army and Russian forces accidentally fire at each other. The Israeli prime minister also seeks assurances from Putin that advanced weapons in Syria won’t be used to help arm Hezbollah, with whom Israel fought a devastating war in 2006.

‘Netanyahu has two red lines in Syria: If it’s fired upon, it will fire back, and if it sees hardware going to Hezbollah, it will hit them,’ David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, told Foreign Policy.

As it turned out, the prime minister didn’t leave Moscow empty-handed. After Monday’s meeting, Netanyahu said Israel and Russia will establish a coordination mechanism to prevent clashes between their forces on the Syrian border. “This is very important for Israel’s security, and this is the first clear outcome of this conversation,’ Netanyahu told reporters.

From Moscow’s perspective, Russian involvement in Syria and its expanded military support for the Assad regime is a key part of a longstanding effort to project power in the Middle East. Easing Israeli security concerns plays into Moscow’s heightened role.

“Putin clearly savors the idea that he can restore some of Russia’s former splendor on the global stage, especially in the Middle East,’ Makovsky said. “But if Russia is going to be in the region, Putin needs to set ground rules with Israel.’

Despite their conflicting views on Palestine, Iran, and other Middle East tension points, Israel and Russia maintain good relations. Netanyahu is hoping to press Putin into keeping Israeli security interests in mind as Moscow expands its role in the region.

‘œIt’s a quid pro quo relationship,’ Ariel Cohen, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told FP. ‘Both countries are very pragmatic with their security.’
Israel has stayed mostly neutral in the Syrian war, but the Israeli air force is believed to have carried out more than a half-dozen airstrikes in Syria against shipments of weapons from Damascus bound for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Russia does not directly sell arms to Hezbollah, but Moscow is the Assad regime’s main weapons supplier and both Damascus and Tehran have transferred Russian weapons to Hezbollah in the past.

In addition to tanks and armored personnel carriers deployed by Moscow at a Syrian air force base south of Latakia, the Russian military presence now also includes surface-to-air missiles and combat aircraft, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday. Syrian government forces are being trained on the new Russian hardware, and if Damascus decides to re-transfer the weaponry to Hezbollah, Israel’s defenses could be threatened.

In the past, Israel and Russia have managed to agree on security issues through concessions to one another. Israel halted military supplies to Georgia after a war in 2008 with Russia. In exchange, Moscow shelved plans to supply the S-300 air defense system to Iran and Syria.

In addition to security, both countries have deepened their relationship since the fall of the Soviet Union, when Moscow was hostile towards Israel. The arrival of more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union has seen both trade and tourism boom between the two countries, and Russia is Israel’s top oil supplier. Putin has also visited Israel twice, once in 2005 and again in 2012.

Israel also has remained neutral in the Ukraine conflict, refusing to support American and European efforts to denounce Russia’s annexation of Crimea or join the Western sanctions regime against Moscow.

However, warm relations with Israel has not prevented Russia from supporting Iran and Syria — or stopped Moscow from putting the S-300 sale back on the table. Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, visited Moscow in July to coordinate Russian and Iranian support for Assad. Moreover, Russian officials now say they expect to agree to terms on the delivery of the S-300s to Iran by the end of the year, though it is unclear when it will go ahead.

After the Kremlin announced plans to deliver the missile defense system to Tehran in April, Netanyahu called Putin to protest, but after some initial harsh words, Israel backed down its rhetoric.

“Israel has always been cautious about antagonizing Russia,’ Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute and a former U.S. intelligence official, told FP. “Ultimately, Israel knows it can’t drastically affect Russia’s behavior. But by playing the Kremlin carefully, Israel can still protect its more narrow security interests.’

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Putin’s clever, cynical Syria strategy befuddles White House once again

Charles Krauthammer
National Post, September 18, 2015

Once again, President Obama and his foreign policy team are stumped. Why is Vladimir Putin pouring troops and weaponry into Syria? After all, as Secretary of State John Kerry has thrice told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, it is only making things worse.

But worse for whom? For the additional thousands of civilians who will die or flee as a result of the inevitably intensified fighting. True, and I’m sure Lavrov is as moved by their plight as by the 8,000 killed in Russia’s splendid little Ukrainian adventure.

Kerry and Obama are serially surprised because they cannot fathom the hard men in the Kremlin. Yet Putin’s objectives in Syria are blindingly obvious:

1. To assert Russia’s influence in the Middle East and make it the dominant outside power. Putin’s highest ambition is to avenge and reverse Russia’s humiliating loss of superpower status a quarter-century ago. Understanding this does not come easily to an American president who for seven years has been assiduously curating America’s decline abroad.

2. To sustain Russia’s major and long-standing Arab ally. Ever since Anwar Sadat kicked the Soviets out of Egypt in 1972, Syria’s Assads have been Russia’s principal asset in the Middle East.

3. To expand the reach of Russia’s own military. It has a naval base at Tartus, its only such outside of Russia. It has an airfield near Latakia, now being expanded with an infusion of battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, howitzers and housing for 1,500 — strongly suggesting ground forces to follow.

4. To push out the Americans. For Putin, geopolitics is a zero-sum game: Russia up, America down. He is demonstrating whom you can rely on in this very tough neighborhood. Obama has given short shrift to the Kurds, shafted America’s allies with the Iran deal and abandoned the Anbar Sunnis who helped us win the surge. Meanwhile, Putin risks putting Russian boots on the ground to rescue his Syrian allies.

Obama says Bashar al-Assad has to go, draws a red line on chemical weapons -” and does nothing. Russia acts on behalf of a desperate ally. Whom do you want in your corner?

5. To re-legitimize post-Crimea Russia by making it indispensable in Syria. It’s a neat two-cushion shot. At the UN next week, Putin will offer Russia as a core member of a new anti-Islamic State coalition. Obama’s Potemkin war – with its phantom local troops (our $500 million training program has yielded five fighters so far) and flaccid air campaign -” is flailing badly. What Putin is proposing is that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah spearhead the anti-jihadist fight.

Putin’s offer is clear: Stop fighting Assad, accept Russia as a major player, and acquiesce to a Russia-Iran-Hezbollah regional hegemony — and we will lead the drive against the Islamic State from in front.

And there is a bonus. The cleverest part of the Putin gambit is its unstated cure for Europe’s refugee crisis.

Wracked by guilt and fear, the Europeans have no idea what to do. Putin offers a way out: No war, no refugees. Stop the Syrian civil war and not only do they stop flooding into Europe, those already there go back home to Syria.

Putin says, settle the war with my client in place -” the Assad regime joined by a few ‘healthy’ opposition forces -” and I solve your refugee nightmare.

You almost have to admire the cynicism. After all, what’s driving the refugees is the war and what’s driving the war is Iran and Russia. They provide the materiel, the funds and now, increasingly, the troops that fuel the fighting. The arsonist plays fireman.

After all, most of the refugees are not fleeing the Islamic State. Its depravity is more ostentatious, but it is mostly visited upon minorities, Christian and Yazidi – and they have already been largely ethnically cleansed from Islamic State territory. The European detention camps are overflowing with Syrians fleeing Assad’s barbarism, especially his attacks on civilians, using artillery, chlorine gas and nail-filled barrel bombs.

Putin to the rescue. As with the chemical weapons debacle, he steps in to save the day. If we acquiesce, Russia becomes an indispensable partner. It begins military and diplomatic coordination with us. (We’ve just agreed to negotiations over Russia’s Syrian buildup.) Its post-Ukraine isolation is lifted and, with Iran, it becomes the regional arbiter.

In the end, the Putin strategy may not work, but it’s deadly serious and not at all obscure. The White House can stop scratching its collective head whenever another Condor transport unloads its tanks and marines at Latakia.

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