Israel and the Russian challenge

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Israeli Air Force commanders are reportedly deeply worried about Russia’s military presence in Syria.


When Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed his forces to Syria last year, he claimed that the deployment would be brief. Russian forces were placed in Syria, Putin said, to protect Assad and would leave once he was able to defend himself.


Last week, when the terms of the deployment agreement concluded between Russia and Syria were made public, we discovered that those early claims were false. Under the terms of the deal, Russia can maintain permanent bases in Syria.


Israel’s Air Force is no match for Russia’s. The S-400 anti-aircraft system Russia is deploying to Syria covers half of Israeli territory. Russia’s deployment means that Israel has lost its regional air superiority.

To be sure, Putin’s decision to set up permanent bases in Syria is not directed against Israel. He is interested in defending Russian interests in areas like oil and Syria where Israel is not an actor. This is the reason that Russia and Israel have been able to reach tactical agreements over Syria.

Among other things, the sides agreed to deconflict their aircraft flying over Syria.

But Israel’s ability to reach tactical understandings with Russia doesn’t mean Israel can trust that Russia’s operations in the area will not harm its national security in significant ways.


For instance, the reports that Russia is transferring arms to Hezbollah are deeply worrying. For the past five years, according to reports in foreign media, the Air Force has repeatedly bombed shipments of Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.


Israel is not in a position to contemplate bombing Russian military shipments to Lebanon. It is also not in a position to challenge a Russian decision to allow Hezbollah to use advanced weapons like Yakhont anti-ship missiles against naval ships either from Lebanon or Syria.


And there is no reason to believe that Russia won’t do so.


Russia has been acting in alliance with Hezbollah, Assad and Iran since the 1980s. Putin’s reported willingness to cooperate with Israel in various areas does not mean that Russia is no longer Iran’s partner in supplying Hezbollah and facilitating its operations.


The government and military have no options for dealing with Russia’s sudden emergence as a major power in our backyard. And there is nothing new in Israel’s helplessness.


We’ve never had an option for reining in Moscow.


But until Barack Obama came into office, Israel never had to worry about Russia.


For 65 years, the US forced Russia to curb its activities in the Middle East.

Until Barack Obama entered the White House, every US president from Franklin Roosevelt on believed it was a US economic and strategic interest of the first order to curb Russian power in the Middle East. The chief reason the US began its strategic alliance with Israel after the 1967 Six Day War was because by defeating Russian clients Egypt and Syria, Israel proved its value to the US’s Cold War strategy.

In the succeeding decades, Israel and the US had a division of labor. It was Israel’s job to defeat or deter Russian – or Soviet – clients in the Arab world. It was the US’s job to deter Russia – or the Soviet Union.

Now, in the final year of the Obama presidency, all that is gone. Obama is content to see Russia exert power and influence that none of his predecessors would have countenanced. And so, for the first time, Israel finds itself standing alone against Russia, with no clear means of protecting its vital national security interests.


Obama’s refusal to take any steps to curb Russia’s deployment and ambitions in the region is not surprising.


It not that he doesn’t understand that Russia’s rise means America’s fall. He undoubtedly has been warned of the implications of Russia’s return to region by the relevant government agencies and the military.


But none of that matters to him. The only thing that Obama cares about is his legacy. Obama cannot take action against Russia without discrediting his entire Middle East policy, and so destroying his own legacy.


OBAMA’S POLICY in the region is based on the assumption that the US is responsible for instability and war in the Middle East. As a consequence, Obama’s regional policy is one that requires the US to abandon those who benefited from US protection and partnership – first and foremost Israel and Saudi Arabia, and appeasing those who most oppose the US and its allies – first and foremost Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.


With Iran’s capture of the US naval craft and its illegal detention of 10 US naval personnel last week, Iran demonstrated, once again, that it has not been appeased by Obama’s nuclear and financial concessions.


Iran continues to view the US as its primary enemy and it continues to view itself as at war against America.

It is beyond dispute that Iran committed a war crime in photographing the US military personnel in humiliating ways and forcing one sailor to film an apology to Iran. The language of the Geneva Conventions is cut and dry on the subject.


But rather than take action against Iran, by among other things, delaying the revocation of economic sanctions against Iran, the Obama administration defended Iran’s act of war against the US.

In a press briefing, State Department spokesman John Kirby argued that Iran did not commit a war crime when it detained and photographed the US sailors in humiliating ways because Iran is not at war with the US.

This is an idiotic statement meant to hide an indefensible position. Obviously, if Kirby is right and Iran is not at war with the US, then the act of detaining and photographing the sailors moves from a mere war crime, to an act of international piracy and hostage taking.

In other words, in detaining US sailors and photographing them, Iran either committed a war crime and an act of war, or it committed an even larger crime – and initiated a war with the US.

But Obama cannot acknowledge that this is the case, because if he does, he will be unable to defend his larger policy – which is equally indefensible.

Iran began broadcasting photographs of the sailors kneeing before their Iranian captors and a video apology in which a sailor issued a groveling apology and thanked Iran for its kindness and hospitality the day before Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the cameras in Vienna and announced that the US and its partners would remove economic sanctions against Iran as soon as the IAEA announced that Iran was abiding by the nuclear deal.

The IAEA then duly announced that Iran was in compliance and it could receive its $150 billion in frozen funds.

Iran crowed that the American sailors cried and otherwise acted like cowards when they were apprehended just hours before Obama went before the cameras and congratulated himself for his brilliantly smart diplomacy that has prevented war. Obama similarly chastised unnamed critics for criticizing his decision to bow and scrape before Iran as it committed acts of war against America.

Obama was undoubtedly relishing the moment as he declared diplomatic victory over his political opponents, but even if he was unhappy about Iran’s behavior he couldn’t have done anything about it.

Obama brags that he was able to reach a nuclear deal where all his predecessors failed. But this hides the main distinction between him and those who came before him.

None of Obama’s predecessors concluded a nuclear deal with Iran because unlike Obama, none of his predecessors were willing to abandon US interests – including the interest of preventing the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons – in order to get a deal. Obama cannot attack Iran’s aggression on the high seas without calling into question the wisdom of his nuclear diplomacy.

He cannot take action against Russia without calling into question his belief that US power in the Middle East is the chief cause of all the region’s problems.

Israel’s military and political leaders are right to be concerned about the implications of Russia’s return to Syria. And it is far from clear that there is a way to credibly minimize the dangers. But, since we’re not going anywhere, we will have to make the best of a bad situation.

Whatever we do, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that unless the next US president rejects Obama’s entire Middle East policy and shepherds the military and financial resources to abandon it, on Russia, Iran and beyond, Israel will have to fend for itself for the foreseeable future.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 

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