On Thursday evening, we detailed a Reuters report which suggested that the influx of Russian technical and logistical support to Bashar al-Assad’s depleted army at Latakia might have breathed new life into the regime as it seeks to rout Islamic State and a whole host of other armed groups fighting for control of Syria. “Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Thursday Russia had provided new weapons and trained Syrian troops how to use them,” Reuters said, before describing what certainly sounds like an invigorated air campaign against the de facto ISIS capital at Raqqa.
Importantly, al-Moualem also indicated that Syria would be willing to make an official request for Russian combat troops “if needed.”
Now clearly, it seems likely that Russian troops have already joined the battle and indeed, when the bullets start flying, the distinction between “logistical” support and “combat” support quickly becomes blurred, but through all the sabre rattling and back-and-forth banter between Kerry and Lavrov, both sides are still keen to at least pay lip service to the unwritten rules of international diplomacy which is why before Russia can admit that its troops are actually on the ground to fight, they’ll be a charade where Syria will pretend to be raising the issue with the Kremlin for the first time at which point the Kremlin will take a few days to “consider” things. As of Friday, it appears as though that process has begun. Here’s Bloomberg:
Russia said it’s willing to consider sending troops into combat operations in Syria if President Bashar al-Assad’s government requests assistance.
While the possibility is hypothetical now, “if there is a request, it will be discussed as part of bilateral contacts,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Friday. “Of course it will be discussed and considered.”
The prospect of direct Russian involvement in the country’s civil war, in which more than 250,000 people have died since 2011, would mark a sharp escalation in President Vladimir Putin’s support for the embattled Assad government. The U.S. has accused Russia of increasing military aid to Syria in recent weeks by sending tanks, artillery and personnel, as well as setting up what the Pentagon says might be a forward airbase near the coastal city of Latakia. Syria also hosts Russia’s only naval facility outside the former Soviet Union at Tartus.
The possibility of troop involvement emerged before a visit to Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday for talks with Putin about Russia’s growing military involvement in Syria. Netanyahu “will present the threats posed to Israel as a result of the increased flow of advanced war material to the Syrian arena and the transfer of deadly weapons to Hezbollah and other terror organizations,” the Israeli government said in an e-mailed statement on Wednesday.
To be sure, Netanyahu’s Russian visit comes at an interesting time. In the US, the last challenge to the Iran nuclear deal was defeated in the Senate on Thursday, paving the way for the agreement’s implementation. Needless to say, Netanyahu isn’t particularly pleased with The White House’s stance on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and US-Israeli relations have deteriorated markedly this year thanks in large part to the Iran deal. But the Israeli PM is also concerned that Russia’s move to reinforce Assad could have implications for Hezbollah, something Netanyahu and Putin will discuss on Monday. Here’s Reuters:
Western officials and a Russian source said last week that Russia was sending an advanced anti-aircraft missile system to Syria in support of Assad.
The Western officials said the SA-22 system would be operated by Russian troops. A U.S. official, who confirmed the information, said the system may be part of a Russian effort to bolster defences at an airfield near Latakia, an Assad stronghold.
Even if Russians operated the missiles and kept them out of the hands of the Syrian army, the arrival of such an advanced anti-aircraft system could unsettle Israel, which in the past has bombed sophisticated arms it suspected were being handed to Assad's Lebanese guerrilla allies, Hezbollah.
(Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah)
Worried about accidentally coming to blows with Russian reinforcements in Syria, Israeli officials said last week they were in contact with Moscow. But Israel also made clear it would continue its policy of stopping advanced arms reaching Hezbollah.
And let’s not forget that just one month ago, Israel hit targets inside Syria after Damascus-based Islamic Jihad lobbed rockets at a village in Northern Israel. Netanyahu claimed the militants were acting on order from an "Iranian general."
“This is another clear and blatant demonstration of Iran’s continued and unabating support and involvement in terrorist attacks against Israel and in the region in general. This attack has also occurred before the ink on the . . . nuclear agreement has even dried, and provided a clear indication of how Iran intends to continue to pursue its destabilising actions and policies as the international sanctions regime is withdrawn in the near future,” Israel's foreign ministry said at the time.
That came just four weeks after Quds commander Qassem Soleimani reportedly met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow where, according to GOP mouthpiece Fox News, the Russian and Iranian leaders discussed "a new joint military plan to strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad, a plan that is now playing out with the insertion of Russian forces in Syria."
In what looks like a rather conveniently timed announcement ahead of Netanyahu's trip to Russia, the Treasury said on Thursday that any Iranian bank receiving sanctions relief as part of the Iran nuclear deal would have sanctions re-imposed in the event they support Hezbollah or the Quds.
(Soleimani who, according to a CIA officer who spoke to The New Yorker in 2013, is "the most powerful operative in the Middle East today")
So this is the backdrop for Netanyahu's visit to the Kremlin and, as mentioned above, it's complicated by the fact that the Prime Minister is now at odds with the US over Washington's handling of the Iran Nuclear Deal. At the end of the day, one is certainly left to believe that Israel's "worries about accidentally coming to blows with Russian reinforcements in Syria" will quickly evaporate should Netanyahu get confirmation that the Quds are indeed on the ground as some reports have recently suggested and if it becomes clear that weapons are being funneled to Hezbollah, well, then all bets will officially be off.