By Pier Francesco Zarcone*
Recent events in Syria (downing of a Russian Ilyushin plane and an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recip Erdoğan on Idlib) lead to some reflections starting with the Israeli bombing that caused more than ten Russian deaths.
Many political observers, including Alberto Negri writing in a September 19 article on the Antidiplomatico site, have noted that when Israel is involved Putin is less decisive than usual. In fact, so far there has been no real Russian reaction to many Israeli violations of Syrian sovereignty, apart from certain formal protests.
However, caution in this case is more than justified, because – beyond the fact that about one million Russian Jews live in Israel – with the United States (and France) burning with the desire to launch a military attack on Syria, the situation could become critical at any moment and modern history teaches us that it is known how certain things begin but not how they evolve.
In the case of the Ilyushin, Israel risked a lot and perhaps those who claims that the (so far) measured Russian reaction and Putin’s phone call to Benjamin Netanyahu – in which the violation of agreements to prevent dangerous incidents was denounced – together with Israeli silence would confirm that the powers in Jerusalem are aware of having come a hair’s breadth from the limit. The fact is that in six months Israel has carried out about 200 air and/or missile attacks on Syrian targets.
On the other hand, entering into the field against Israel is militarily dangerous, because of the aforementioned and not hidden ambitions of Israel’s allies, so it is more advisable for Moscow to limit itself to diplomatic manoeuvres, even if they do not always work. It should be borne in mind that Israel suits Russia because of its openness to financial manoeuvres for circumventing US and European Union sanctions; the other side of the coin comes from Russian obstacles to the anti-Israeli boycott campaign.
But trust in the Near East is a very rare currency, as demonstrated by the continuous interventions of Israel in Syria as part of as its anti-Iran posture. That is to say, the government of Israel knows very well what the Russian presence in Syrian territory represents for it, namely an obstacle to Iran’s hegemony over that country, but – obviously not trusting it all the way – does not give up its own interventions to hit Iranian and Hezbollāh targets and supply lines. Especially since they are also enemies of the United States, so it can be said that these Israeli military actions are also carried out by US proxy.
It seems in fact that Israel has decided to accept the rescue of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad orchestrated by Russia, without however giving up actions against the Iranian presence in Syria, and in a certain sense Russia allows this, but within certain limits which were crossed in the case of the Ilyushin. In the logic of international power games it is not worth remembering that it was precisely Iranians and Shiite militias that gave a substantial hand on the ground for the current victory of the government of Damascus, with which Russia is allied; and not even the current entente between Moscow and Iran say much.
This latter aspect is quite complex. It appears that when Putin decided in 2015 to intervene in Syria (home to the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean, in Tartus) because the Assad government was grappling with a militarily negative phase of war, in Damascus there was a clash between sectors of the secret services and the Armed Forces which were divided about the opportunity or not of throwing themselves into the arms of Iran for the purpose of salvation.
The Russian intervention surpassed this problem, and Moscow achieved six results to its credit: securing the Tartus base; saving the Assad government and tightening mutual ties; growth of its prestige at least in the Shiite areas of the Near East and in the Muslim (even Sunni) sectors, waiting for someone to decide to intervene effectively against the jihadists; removal of the danger of massive military action by the United States and its allies in the case of a victory in Damascus of the pro-Iranian faction, even though Obama was reluctant to embark on a war against Iran; guarantees to Iran about the possibility of action by Shiite militias; but also virtual guarantees to Israel about Russian control over the action of these militias.
This last piece of the puzzle in May this year was to materialise in a more or less secret Russian-Israeli agreement on the positioning of these militiamen at an adequate distance from the border.
The current entente between Russia and Iran should not be overrated, but considered simply for what it is: a contingent convergence of interests of each party, in which millenary, astute and patient Persian diplomacy knows that at the moment it is convenient to swallow the pill – somewhat bitter – of Russian interference with Iran’s hegemonic aims also as regards Syria. On the other hand, even if with the final stretch in which “the majority shareholder” is Russia, in some ways the coveted Shiite corridor could be said to have been realised. Then we will see, depending on the evolution of international and local scenarios.
Putin’s further success occurred in Sochi on September 16 through the agreement signed with Erdoğan on Idlib, substantially postponing the Russian/Syrian military offensive against the last piece of Syria in the hands of the jihadists. In this way the threatened US intervention (to protect the jihadists putting forward humanitarian pretexts) was avoided should the offensive have begun.
Even here, Putin moved shrewdly by reaching agreements with Turkey and Iran and cutting out Washington, which also saw its excuse for intervention removed. One could consider the latest Israeli raid on Syria as the result of anger over the Sochi agreement. In fact, in his aforementioned article, Alberto Negri concluded that former empires – the Russian and the Ottoman empires, blessed by the Persian empire – have reached agreement while the American empire has allowed Israel to bomb without asking anyone’s permission.
Needless to say, this is an agreement pro rempore: the creation of a buffer zone controlled by a joint force of Russian military police and Turkish soldiers to separate jihadists and the Syrian army, as well as the delivery of heavy weapons by the former, are clearly measures designed to create rifts between the most radicalised rebels (for example Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria) and those most inclined to a peace agreement guaranteed by Turkey. Once this goal is reached, Turkey (still a member of NATO after all) should allow the Russian/Syrian attack for eliminating the last diehards.
* Pier Francesco Zarcone, with a degree in canonical law, is a historian of the labour movement and a scholar of Islam, among others. He is a member of Utopia Red (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: La Quinta (The Fifth). This article was originally published in Italian under the title Russia, Iran, Turchia, Israele e la Siria in Red Utopia. Translated by Phil Harris.