ET TU PUTIN: Moscow’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah threatens strategic Israeli interests
GOVERNMENTS AND pundits were stunned last September when Russia sent an expeditionary force into Syria.
The immediate goal seemed to be to safeguard the survival of the beleaguered Bashar Assad regime and Russian naval assets in the port of Tartus. But it soon became clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin had other major strategic goals.
On the face of it, Putin was challenging Western sanctions and NATO military moves after Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its military support for the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. But Russia’s interest in Syria goes much deeper. It is driven by a burning desire to reinstate its Middle Eastern presence and influence, after an absence of three decades, and the great power status it lost with the crumbling of the Soviet empire.
Moreover, after Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared the creation of a new province, in the North Caucasus in June 2015, Russia shifted its threat assessment from the Caucasus emirate to IS militants in the region. Moscow’s Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service have been monitoring over 2,800 Russian citizens who left to fight alongside IS in Syria and Iraq, and the Russian government is deeply concerned over IS influence among Russia’s 20 million Muslims.
Putin exploited American weakness on Syria and European confusion over the massive wave of refugees from the region.
US President Barack Obama appeared to be caught off guard by the bold Russian move. His administration responded with contradictory steps, criticizing the Russian attacks against moderate pro- Western rebels, while coordinating “deconflicting” talks with Moscow to avoid accidental clashes between the Russian and US militaries.
The Russian intervention in Syria was planned months before the signing of the P+5 nuclear deal with Iran. The Iranians, despite a major military effort, failed to stop the advance of the Syrian opposition forces. Indeed, Tehran was probably the regional architect of the Russian move, coordinating the positions of its allies, Hezbollah and the Shi’ite government in Baghdad. As early as September 2014, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said Russia had been calling “for months for a new coalition to fight against Islamic State, which would include Syria, Iraq and Iran.”
Although Russia has a direct long-term interest in destroying the IS caliphate and neutralizing the threat of thousands of Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in its ranks, the Russian bombings are targeting mainly the less radical Islamists and the more moderate opposition.
A late December airstrike in Eastern Ghouta killed Salafist leader Zahran Alloush, the commander of Jaysh al- Islam, the largest armed
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