When Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the green light to Russian aerial bombing of rebel-held positions in southwestern Syria two weeks ago, he knew he was asking for trouble.
And he appears to be getting plenty of it.
Putin knows that in approving the operation, he wasn’t simply enabling Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Syrian military forces to extend the regime’s control to an area that has been controlled by various rebel militia for seven years.
The Syrian military is an empty shell. Russia effectively serves as the Syrian Air Force. Iran and Iranian-controlled groups control Syria’s ground forces.
Israeli intelligence assesses that thousands of Iranian forces are deployed in Syria. The troops Iran commands are not predominantly Syrian. Rather, most of the ground troops in the so-called Syrian military are Iranian-controlled Hezbollah terrorists from Lebanon, and members of Iranian-controlled Shiite militia, which is in turn comprised of fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Israeli intelligence estimates that some seven thousand Hezbollah forces and 9,000 Shiite militia members are deployed to Syria to fight on behalf of Assad’s regime.
In other words, when Putin ordered the operation against rebel-controlled Deraa province along Syria’s border with Jordan, and signaled that once Deraa was conquered, the operation would extend to Quneitra province along the Syrian border with Israel, he knew that he was fighting to enable Iranian forces and Iranian-controlled forces to take over Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel.
Since the Russia-led operation against Deraa began, Israeli commentators have assessed that Putin wished to wrap up the offensive ahead of his July 16 summit with President Donald Trump in Helsinki so that he could present Trump with a fait accompli. A Russian triumph would convince Trump that U.S. operations in Syria are futile, and he would have accept Russia’s predominance, with Iran in the war-torn country.
At the outset of the attack, Putin’s assessed position made perfect sense.
The implication of the Deraa campaign is that Putin disregarded the ceasefire deal he concluded with Trump last July. In that deal, Putin agreed not to attack southwestern Syria and the U.S. effectively acquiesced to Iranian control of the rest of the country through its proxies – including Assad himself. Rather than stridently object to the operation, as the administration did in May when Assad began a similar one, and so end it before it got off the ground, the Trump administration’s response was muted.
These early responses empowered the Russians and their Iranian partners to push forward and extend their control over much of Deraa province, causing some 270,000 civilians to flee their homes and run to the Syrian borders with Jordan and Israel.
But over the past two or three days, there have been indications that both the U.S. and Israel adopted positions regarding the offensive that, according to some reports have stopped the Russian-Syrian-Iranian advance in its tracks. Putin, these reports intimate, has become convinced there is no reason to continue because the operation will extend past July 16.
His plan to negotiate from strength has failed, and now he is looking for an escape hatch.
To that effect, on Wednesday, Jerusalem and Moscow announced that five days before his meeting with Trump, Putin will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow. The situation in Syria will be the focus of their discussions.
What has changed in the last several days to convince Putin that he will not arrive in Helsinki as the all-powerful power broker in Syria? What has made him turn to Netanyahu for a way out of the crisis he instigated with his bombing campaign? And what can he expect to hear from Netanyahu?
The first thing that changed was the American position on Syria.
Until Sunday, the Trump administration’s position on Syria was effectively the Obama administration’s position on Syria. When the war in Syria broke out seven years ago, Iran rushed to help Assad, its longstanding proxy, – repel the rebellion. Recognizing Iran’s strategic interest in keeping Assad in power at all costs, Obama chose to enable Assad to remain in power. Obama viewed that as a means to advance his overarching strategic objective of realigning the U.S. away from its traditional Middle Eastern allies — Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — and toward Iran.
The ceasefire or de-escalation deal that Trump and Putin concluded when they met last July was very much in line with that Obama strategy. It limited the area where Iran was not allowed to deploy to a narrow swathe along the Syrian borders with Israel and Jordan. By leaving the rest of Syrian territory out of the deal, the U.S. effectively accepted that Iran could have a free hand to act in the rest of Syria.
Moreover, as the Russian-Syrian-Iranian advance on Deraa over the past two weeks has made clear, the deal on southwestern Syria was unenforceable.
In line with this policy, according to a-Sharq al Awsat, last month two Obama holdovers — Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk — drafted an agreement with Russia that would have permitted Iran to deploy unlimited numbers of forces throughout Syria, aside from the 25 kilometer area along the borders with Jordan and Israel. In exchange, they agreed to remove U.S. forces from the Tanf airbase along the border between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Among other things, the Tanf base prevents Iran from transferring weapons and missiles to Hezbollah.
So rather than stand up to Putin, Satterfield and McGurk penned a deal that bowed before him. They agreed to reward his aggression by giving up a vital U.S.-controlled strategic asset in Syria for nothing.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House rejected the deal and set the U.S. on a new strategic course in Syria.
In an interview last Sunday on CBS News’ Face the Nation, National Security Advisor John Bolton made the new policy explicit.
Bolton argued that Iran is the strategic threat to U.S. interests in Syria, not Assad. In Bolton’s words, “I don’t think Assad [i.e., the Assad regime and the Syrian armed forces] is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue.”
Bolton intimated that during Trump’s July 16 meeting with Putin, he will not try to convince the Russian leader to conform with the de-escalation agreement from last July. Certainly, he won’t be adding more sweeteners to the deal – like the Tanf air base – to convince Putin to stop betraying his word.
Rather, Bolton said, the administration is interested in making a completely different deal. In his words, “There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward.”
This position is aligned with Israel’s position. Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that Israel will not accept the entrenchment of Iranian and Iranian-controlled forces in Syria.
The second development that has prevented Russia from consolidating regime control over the Deraa province is the failure of Russian negotiators to convince rebel forces to surrender their positions and arms in the framework of a ceasefire.
Since late last week, Russian generals have been meeting with rebel commanders in Deraa, with Jordanian mediation, to secure a deal that would have them transfer their heavy weapons and personal weapons to Russian military forces and gendarmerie. Although some local commanders at the village level have cut private deals with the Russians, the bulk of rebel commanders have refused to do so.
The third development is the poor performance of the regime forces and their Iranian-controlled partners in the fighting amidst reports that they may be receiving outside help. According to Syrian War Daily and Israeli security sources, the advance was stopped in its tracks on Tuesday.
Also Tuesday, the Israeli Air Force reportedly bombed an Iranian weapons depot that served Hezbollah and Shiite militia forces in Deraa. Israel also reportedly attacked Hezbollah positions in the city. If these reports are accurate, the Russia-led Syrian-Iranian advance was halted after it was met by an Israeli-supported defense by rebel groups.
Finally, over the past few days, Israel has drawn an explicit, U.N.-supported position that renders the Russian-led Syrian-Iranian advance diplomatically costly and difficult to defend.
So far, Russia’s position has been that Iranian forces in Syria are legitimate because they were invited to deploy in the country by the Syrian regime. On Sunday, Netanyahu said that Israel stringently abides by the 1974 UN-brokered disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria.
The disengagement of forces agreement was concluded in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which ended with Israeli forces on the outskirts of Damascus. It called for Israel to withdraw from the Quneitra province to the ceasefire lines that existed at the end of the 1967 Six Day War. In exchange, Syria agreed that the Quneitra area would be free of all Syrian military presence. The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established to deploy in the demilitarized zone on the Syrian side of the border to ensure Syrian ceasefire compliance.
UNDOF forces fled to Israel in 2014 after a contingent of 45 Fijian soldiers were kidnapped by the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front.
Last week, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to renew UNDOF’s mandate.
These developments have significantly weakened Putin’s position ahead of his meetings with both Netanyahu and Trump – who are operating in tandem.
But what is absolutely clear is that events of the past several days have significantly weakened Russia’s position. Consequently, the possibility that the situation in southwestern Syria will be defused, without a major war between Israel and Iran-Syria-Lebanon, has grown dramatically.