The Russian Intervention In Syria: Amatzia Baram Discusses Strategic Shifts in the Middle East


2015-10-26 by Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

The Russian intervention in Syria is a strategic turning point in the Middle East.

The intervention alters the conflict and affects the alliances playing out in a fluid and dynamic situation.

To get beyond the Inside the Beltway discussions, and get a sense of how a key regional player is looking at the evolving situation, we had a chance to talk with Amatzia Baram, a leading Israeli expert on the region, in a recent telephone interview.

Question: We would like to start our conversation by getting your sense of how the Russian military intervention in Syria is changing the game in the Middle East.

The Russians are doing a re-set but perhaps not along the lines that Hillary Clinton had in mind when she suggested it.

Let us start with this question: Can Putin take ownership of Assad and make a difference in terms of stability in the region?

Amatzia Baram: Surprisingly, yes.

The Russians are doing two things in Syria.

The first is to firm up their military position in the Eastern Mediterranean, whereby their fifth fleet can expand its operations in Tartus and to have an air base at Lattakia to provide protection to the naval base.

Ships from the Russian Mediterranean fleet. © Photo: Press Service of the Russian Defense Ministry
Ships from the Russian Mediterranean fleet. © Photo: Press Service of the Russian Defense Ministry

Previously, Assad didn’t give them permission to expand Tartus and use it as the Russian fifth fleet port.

Until now, the Russian fifth fleet, which is also known as the Russian Mediterranean Fleet was home, ported in Sevastopol, hardly a key Mediterranean port.

Now they will be able to operate their surface fleet and submarine fleet from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Second, Assad is hoping that the Russians help neutralize Iran in Syria. The Russians are supporting Assad in keeping the corridor between Damascus and the beach and the shore of the Aluwite Mountains.

The Iranians are now controlling most of Assad’s controlled area.

Assad is very worried about it because he feels that even if he stays as a president, the Iranians are taking more and more of Syria.

He has enlisted the aid of the Russians to protect his interests.

This a secondary Russian objective but an important one to Assad.

Question: Will the Russians expand their influence in Iraq as well due to their expanded Syrian presence?

Amatzia Baram: We shall see what they do, but they clearly are gaining traction in Iraq with their actions.

For example, the NATO radars in Northern Iraq are feeding information into the joint intelligence center in Iraq.

The Iraqi government is sharing information with the Iranians and now with the Russians.

And Prime Minister Abadi is under pressure from the Shite, pro-Iranian militias and from Tehran to ask the Russians to send air-to-ground support jets to attack ISIS within Iraq as well.

But Abadi is not interested yet in doing so for two reasons.

First, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was in Baghdad recently and indicated that the U.S. clearly does not want this to happen.

Second, he knows that the Russians are not worried about collateral damage, which would occur if they come in and if the Russians were to attack Mosul with those methods or against Ramadi or Fullujah, he would lose the support of the Sunnis forever.

He still hopes that they will help him to liberate the areas taken by ISIS.

A number of Sunni tribes are indeed working with him.

Question: How do Russian actions affect his relationship with key players in the region, such as Israel and Iran?

Amatzia Baram: You have to start from the fact that Putin does not fear Obama or any strategy, which the President will put together.

A measure of this was that he informed Washington of his air strikes coming in Syria through a junior functionary in Iraq.

In contrast, Putin met with the Israeli PM in Moscow and senior Israeli and Russian military officers met for a few hours to talk about coordination.

There is now a “red” phone line between the head of the Russians Operations Center and the Israeli Air Force.

Maybe it is blue-and-white on one side and red on the other but it’s a direct link.

Putin knows that Israel takes his actions very seriously.

And he remembers what happened when we had a direct exchange in 1970 where the IAF downed all five Russian fighters over the Sinai. He has a long memory with regard to this kind of impact.

He is respectful of Israel and we of him.

It is obvious; we do not want to go to war with Russia.

There is a key danger however.

Our pilots know every tree and every trench between Israel and Turkey. The Russian pilots do not and there is a clear danger that they will show up in key conflict areas unintended with perhaps negative consequences.

That is why deconfliction hot lines are important as well.

In Syria, the U.S. and the allies have vast areas to adjust; in between Israel, Lebanon, and Damascus, and the Alawite mountain and shore line, we are talking only a few kilometers.

Question: Can a negotiated settlement over Syria take place now?

Amatzia Baram: I can see the parameters of a solution, but it will be very difficult to put in place. There are so many moving parts, that conflict is very likely among those moving parts.

There is a clear European interest in seeing the conflict dampened down and they need to work on resolving those challenges before any realistic chance for ending the civil war in Syria is possible.

They cannot absorb millions of Middle Eastern refugees in Europe in very few years.

It will kill Europe.

My approach would be first to stop the influx by working with Turkey. Then to return many of them, to Turkey and Kurdistan-Iraq, where they are safe but extremely unhappy.

At the same time, it is importanat to build a no-fly zone inside Syria and guard it. It will be necessary as well to build modern industrial projects, including high-tech that will provide the refugees with income (in addition to the present UN support) and know-how.

All this will be temporarily.

Then, depending on the end of fighting, you can start sending people back into Syria and Iraq with the newly acquired skills and operating industrial  establishments.

On the whole, this is the only way Europe can help the refugees and migrants without destroying itself.

My view would be to ask the Turks to reverse the whole process.

Is it possible?

It’s not easy, but with the right amount of money it’s possible.

Question: What is the impact of Russian actions on Iran and the responsibility of the Russians to hold the Iranians accountable in the nuclear agreement?

Amatzia Baram: The Russians will not hold the Iranian feet to the fire.

The Russians are very practical and I would say cynical.

To them, Iran is a huge economic opportunity.

They are not really worried about Iran becoming a nuclear power and they see it this is an American problem.

The Russians will keep their economic ties with Iran as long as they can, and they will not support the Americans if the Americans decide to do something about Iranian infringements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Ivan Sekretarev/Pool
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Ivan Sekretarev/Pool

Question: What about the impact of the Russian-Israeli agreement and its possible spillover effect on Lebanon?

Amatzia Baram: The Russians are not supporting Hezbollah. If Assad is giving Hezbollah all sorts of advanced weapons that we don’t want them to have, to the Russians this is an Israeli problem.

The Russians are not doing it, Assad is doing it.

The Russians will not prevent Assad from paying Hezbollah for their support with sophisticated weapons.

But they will not interfere with us dealing with this challenge.

The only danger is an accidental confrontation in the air.

They are now supporting the Iranian ground offensive against the revolutionaries from the air, but they do it in northwestern Syria and not in Lebanon.

The Russians are not really allies of Iran. This is very important to understand.

The Iranians are useful to them in many ways: militarily and economically in Syria.

I think Israel can reach an agreement with Russia in terms of: You don’t support Hezbollah, you don’t stop us when we want to attack a convoy. We attack a convoy; we shall let you know perhaps 10 minutes before the operation when it will be too late for information to leak.

The message will be: Just keep your air planes away.

Question: The thrust of your assessment makes Northern Syria the key flash point to shape a way ahead, certainly from a Russian point of view.

They are more than willing to promote a cease-fire, given that they have already achieved their key objective, one, which would be ratified by an cease fire agreement.

How do you see the way ahead for Northern Syria?

Amatzia Baram: This very limited area, the corridor between Damascus and the Alawite Mountain and the northwestern Syria, are now the two crucial areas.

The Russians would wish to be a broker for any agreement in which Assad is taken off of the table and the key players behind Assad become part of any future agreement.

The paradox here is: because the Russians are more massively invested now in western Syria, they also are more interested in reaching some agreement.

The Iranians will be part of any agreement as well. They have sent soldiers to Syria in order to expand a little the area around Latakia in the northwest with Russian air support, but even the Iranians are not feeling very happy about having to pump Iranian soldiers and resources into the front in Syrian front.

They would like Iranian soldiers to be in Iran. They much prefer to fight the Sunni revolutionaries until the last Arab.

The war in Syria is not very popular in Iran.

Hezbollah looks invincible, and indestructible. This is absolutely a mistake. No one knows how many fighters they have lost so far. For a good reason, they are not telling you how many people they lost, and they lost at least 1500, possibly more. They have been keeping some 5,000 fighters in Syria, fighting non-stop.

Hezbollah is exhausted as well.

The Sunni revolutionaries, however, are not exhausted. The Russians are not either, but the Russians are uneasy about the whole situation. They must have Tartus and Latakiya as bases, but they don’t want to go on in the war.

They’d like to end the war right now if they can.

I see a lot of fatigue on the Iranian and Hezbollah fronts, and that, to my mind, is an opportunity.

If I were in Obama’s place, I would start talking to the Russians seriously about some political solution that will recognize Russian interests.

If they can get that from the U.S., I think they’ll be more ready to compromise on Assad.

Then the problem will be, of course, the Iranians.

But if the US and the Russians together tell the Iranians, “That’s how it’s going to be,” I doubt that the Iranians are going to risk everything in order to explode this agreement.

In my view, this is the way to go.

Editor’s Note: Prof. Dr. Amatzia Baram is a professor of Middle East History and Director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa.

Professor Baram was born in Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in southern Israel and raised and educated there.

He served as an officer and commanded tank units in the Armoured Corps during his regular military service from 1956 to 1960 and while in the reserves.

He was ‘on loan’ to the Iraqi desk at Military Intelligence as an analyst when the Iraq-Iran War began in 1980.

After release from regular military service he worked on the kibbutz farm, before graduating in biology and teaching sciences at the kibbutz high school.

He he decided on a career change following the Six Day War in 1967 and started his education as an historian of the modern Middle East and Islam in 1971

His latest book Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003: Ba’thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith was published in the Fall of 2014.

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