Israeli concern of Assad’s allies repositioning in Syria

A Russian soldier in al-Wafideen camp in Damascus - 1 March 2018 (Reuters / Omar Sanadiki)

A Russian soldier in al-Wafideen camp in Damascus - 1 March 2018 (Reuters / Omar Sanadiki)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

The Russian war on Ukraine occupied the talk of the Israeli press, which considered the change in the deployment of active forces would open up a greater Iranian space in Syria, Israel’s neighbor, to which Iran has long posed threats.

“Mired in Ukraine,” the Israeli Haaretz newspaper described on 18 April the Russian situation, which is trying to balance its presence in Syria and the front opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine since 24 February, whose repercussions must have appeared on the Syrian ground, in which Moscow is present, since 2015.

In the context of the politically active forces in Syria and their impact on Tel Aviv, the analytical report published in Haaretz considered that Israel’s ambiguous position towards Moscow’s war on Kyiv appeared through statements by Israeli officials and Tel Aviv’s vote with Washington on the decision to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council, in addition to statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who described what Russia is committing in Ukraine as “war crimes.”

The political statements between Moscow and Tel Aviv about Ukraine have been reflected in the coordination between the two parties in Syria, as Israel launches strikes on Iranian sites from time to time in coordination with Russia.

Israel had previously established a deconfliction mechanism with Russia after its intervention in Syria alongside the Syrian regime forces to prevent inadvertent clashes during Israeli strikes against Iranian proliferation and arms transfers in the neighboring Arab country.

But now, the main concern of the Israeli Ministry of Defense is the obstruction of sensitive Israeli-Russian relations in Syria, as the Israeli army regularly works against Iranian-backed forces, specifically Iran-backed Hezbollah.

According to an analysis issued by the Jusoor Center for Studies on 23 April titled “The Impact of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the Syrian Regime,” the conflict in Ukraine led to a noticeable decline in coordination between Russia and Israel in Syria.

This resulted in an increased reliance on bombing targets on “surface-to-surface” missiles from the occupied Golan Heights and the use of Lebanese airspace to carry out strikes inside Syria, thus exposing the regime’s sites to more Israeli strikes.

Movements of active forces not yet confirmed

With the Russian media ignoring any updates about a change in Moscow’s bases in Syria, it is difficult to definitively verify Russian moves in Syria in the midst of its battles in Ukraine, according to what Enab Baladi monitored.

On the contrary, despite its “preoccupation” in Ukraine, the Russian exercises for the Syrian regime forces are still continuing, in addition to conducting patrols on the M5 international highway in Syria. Moreover, the Russian Air Force launched strikes, despite the decline in their pace from 2021, both against pockets of the Islamic State group in the Syrian Badia or against the positions of the opposition factions in Idlib region and the countryside of Aleppo city.

However, according to the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Russia has postponed on 16 April the shifts of its military units in Syria due to its military operations in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Military Staff stated that “due to hostilities on the territory of Ukraine, the rotation of units of the 68th (Russian) Corps in the Eastern Military District of the Syrian Arab Republic has been postponed.”

According to the information available to the General Staff, the military enlistment offices of the Central Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are working on persuading reserve recruits to sign short-term contracts of three months to one year.

Haaretz reported that the Israeli concern is that Russia is reducing its forces in Syria, including hundreds of mercenaries from the Wagner group, to strengthen its presence in Ukraine, while the Iranians and pro-Iranian militias are being replaced by the withdrawn Russian soldiers, according to what circulated on social media and Arab news sites.

According to the Israeli newspaper, the Syrian 47th Armored Brigade was placed under Iranian command in the southern part of Hama governorate, central Syria.

At the headquarters of the brigade, where there is also a training center, about 40 military vehicles arrived recently, in addition to about 17 pickup trucks equipped with machine guns, some of which are operated by Hezbollah fighters.

Zvi Bar’el, the author of the article in Haaretz, considered that the number of Iranian forces in Syria has not changed as a result of these moves, nor the threat to Israel, but the new element is the war in Ukraine, which could make the Iranian military presence an influential factor in decision-making in Syria.

Commenting on the Iranian distribution and threat that the Russian repositioning in Syria may pose to Israel, Diaa Kaddour, a researcher in Iranian affairs, says that there is insufficient evidence to confirm the allegations that Russia has reduced its military presence in Syria due to the war on Ukraine.

He added to Enab Baladi that what was circulated in the media is inaccurate and unconfirmed information so far.

The expert believes that it is too early to circulate information about the decline of the Russian presence in favor of the Iranians in Syria, which appears in its content to be “more emotional” in view of the confirmed information about the stability of Russian refueling operations in Syria, and the inaccuracy of reports about the Russians bringing in mercenaries of the regime forces to Ukraine.

Despite the huge Russian losses in Ukraine, Russia is still dealing with the Syrian file on the principle of “everything is fine,” as it maintains its local and regional bases and alliances in Syria, says Kaddour.

He added that Syria still constitutes an advanced operational base for the Russians and that the Russians maintain their “routine” military presence out of a deep concern that the American involvement in Syria will return in a more serious and effective manner, which threatens Russia’s interests and gains in Syria.

Accordingly, Russia seeks to preserve its gains achieved in Syria and is keen not to move on a second front other than Ukraine so that it can achieve gains and achievements in Ukraine that some may see as uncertain.

Kaddour noted that Iran is promoting this issue in its media by republishing and translating information that came in Israeli newspapers, such as Haaretz.

But at the same time, Iran neither denies nor confirms this information, which indicates Iranian satisfaction with the military and economic pressure that is tiring the Russians in Ukraine, which will ultimately have positive repercussions on the expansion of Iranian influence in Syria.

Russia’s last options

Nawar Shaaban, the head of the information unit at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes that any repositioning and any withdrawal of any piece of any military bloc, whether it is for Russia or affiliated with Russian security companies, such as Wagner or Vega /Vegacy and others, or whether the army is the Russian military, or if the Russian military police were stationed at a regime base, would create a vacuum, and the only party capable of filling it is Iran.

During the previous period, Iran worked to strengthen its military and security presence at the local level. It may seem that the control of a military piece, a military place, or a specific point is for a local authority, but Iran was preparing for this matter, according to Shaaban.

The researcher confirmed that there had been no huge repositioning by the Russians so far in Syria, but he considered that the continuation of the war on Ukraine would force the Russian side, sooner or later, to withdraw forces, and this is the “last possibility and options” for the Russians, as Moscow knows the importance of its presence in Syria.

Shaaban ruled out Russia from bringing in its own forces from Syria, stressing that the Russians are using the method of hiring forces from the Syrian regime on contracts through private security companies.

The Associated Press reported on 18 April that members of the Tiger Forces registered to go and fight alongside the Russian forces in Ukraine, and they are “including Syrian soldiers, former rebels, and experienced fighters who fought for years against the Islamic State group in Syria’s desert.”

Despite previous Russian talk about more than 16,000 requests from the Middle East to recruit and fight alongside the Russians, the report indicated that only a few arrived in Russia for military training before being deployed on the front lines, with US officials and activists skeptical that the number of fighters from the region is large.

In the long term, the conflict will lead to military and economic drain on the most important international supporter of the Syrian regime in light of the high military losses of the Russians, according to Jusoor Center for Studies, although the impact of the current Russian military drain on the Russian presence in Syria has not appeared.

The study also indicated that the length of the conflict is likely to lead to Russia’s retreat or abandonment of support for some military units that helped the regime restore its balance against the opposition factions, such as the Fifth Corps, 6th Division, and 25th Division.

The expert Shaaban considers the Fifth Corps, which was established by Russia in 2016 in the southern region adjacent to the Israeli border, to be the “safety valve” for Iranian movements in the south and is very important to Israel.

He expected that “coordination” will be “strengthened” between Israel and Russia in the future in order to control the voids that may form if Russia decides to withdraw its forces further, despite the media promotion that reports the opposite.

 

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