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Monday, March 20, 2017

What Will Russia Do If The War In Syria Expands?

There's been war in Syria for the last five years.  The country is in ruins.  Half a million people have died.  Millions more are refugees both within and without Syria.  There are foreign forces fighting in Syria for Iran, Russia, the Hezbollah terrorists, Turkey, the Kurdish militias, the USA and an assortment of individuals who joined ISIS.  Right now there seem to be at least five Syrian sides to the civil war:  the Assad forces which are the remnants of the pre-war government/army; ISIS; the other Sunni terrorist groups like the al-Nusra front which grew out of al Qaeda (under an ever-changing series of names; the Sunni Arab non-terrorist forces and the Syrian Kurdish forces.  Russia, Iran and Hezbollah support Assad and target mostly the non-terrorist Sunnis as well as the Kurds.  The Turks seem to have chosen the Kurds as their main target but they also oppose ISIS and, to a lesser extent, the Assad forces.  The Kurdish militias that have come from abroad support the local Kurds.  The American forces seem focused on destroying ISIS and trying to keep the Kurds and the Turks from fighting.  Simply put, it's a mess.

The problem is that it is a mess that seems about to get worse.  The Assad forces seem to be moving towards starting a confrontation with Israel.  Assad has been strengthening his position against domestic opponents for some time.  A year and a half ago, it looked like Assad was about to be ousted.  Then the Russians and the Iranians poured in forces to support their guy and the Assad forces regrouped and rallied.  During this time, the Kurdish forces also strengthened their position, but the Kurds have not gone beyond the traditional Kurdish areas of the country which they now mostly control.  The various terrorists and the non-terrorist Sunnis, however, have been getting battered.  So Assad seems to be picking a fight with the Israelis.  In the last week, Syrian anti-aircraft weapons were fired at Israeli planes.  Nothing was hit despite Syrian claims to the contrary.  (The Assad forces always claim to have shot down Israeli planes, but somehow they never do.)  Still, just by firing on Israeli planes, Assad has upped the ante.  The Israeli defense minister said yesterday that if the Syrian anti-aircraft systems fire at Israeli planes, the Israeli Air Force would be forced to destroy them.  Imagine the reaction if Israeli planes wipe out Syria's anti-aircraft systems.  Such a move might force the hand of Iran which has substantial troops near the Syrian - Israeli border.  Would the Iranians dare to throw their troops into a battle against Israel?  Such a move could lead to major casualties and a major and embarrassing loss for the Iranians.  More likely, the Iranians would have their client terror group, Hezbollah, launch some of its 100,000 missiles that are aimed at Israel.  We that to happen, the Israelis would, no doubt, move against the Hezbollah positions in Lebanon in order to take out as many of the remaining missiles as possible.  The Israelis would suffer losses, but they could take out the Hezbollah forces as well as the Iranians. 

Let's stop here for a moment.  It may sound strange to say, but in a battle between Israel on the one side and Assad, Iran and Hezbollah on the other side, most of the Sunni Arab states would be rooting for the Israelis to win.  I doubt that we would see any active participation by countries like Saudi Arabia or Jordan in the fighting, but they are all so upset by the Iranian moves towards hegemony in the region, that they would like to see Iran defeated.

That brings us to the key question:  what would the Russians do?  Russia has naval and air bases in Syria and supports the Assad regime.  Would it stand by and watch Israeli forces pulverize its ally?  On the other hand, Russia has warm relations with the Israelis at the moment.  Indeed, the Israeli prime minister has visited with president Putin of Russia four times in the last 18 months, and there have been major efforts to coordinate the Russian and Israeli forces in the region so that there are no accidental confrontations.  Would Putin put his country's forces in harm's way when the adversary has local dominance?  What would Putin do if his forces were thrown into the battle and then defeated by Israel?  How would that look to the world?  Putin may be prepared to invade a poorly armed country like Ukraine, but a major foreign adventure against a well equipped adversary like Israel might not appeal much to the Kremlin.

Then there's the other wild card in the situation.  What would the USA do if the Russians were to join a battle against Israel?  Would President Trump sit by if the Israelis needed American help to fend off Russia?

The point of all of this is simple:  the move by Assad to try to confront the Israelis is incredibly dangerous for world peace.  Assad may be a psychotic killer who cares for nothing other than remaining in power.  Russia, however, has to make a move now.  Putin needs to "explain" to Assad that if he confronts Israel, he will be on his own.  Iran needs to join in that "explanation".  At that point, Assad will understand that he cannot hope to profit from a battle against Israel.

It's a frightening situation right now.  Fortunately, we don't have the do-nothing Obama in office anymore.  Were he still there, the Russians would understand that the USA would do nothing, no matter what happened.  The unpredictability of President Trump should keep things calmer than they otherwise would be.  Let's hope that the parties all realize that.

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