Why is Putin “allowing” Israel to bomb Syria?
[This article has been written for the Unz Review]
Informationclearinghouse recently posted an article by Darius Shahtahmasebi entitled “Israel Keeps Bombing Syria and Nobody Is Doing Anything About It”. Following this publication I received an email from a reader asking me the following question: “Putin permitting Israel to bomb Syria – why? I am confused by Putins actions – does Putin support the Zionist entity, on the quiet like. I would appreciate your feedback on this matter. Also – I have heard, but not been able to confirm, that the Russian Jewish immigrants to Occupied Palestines are the most ardent tormenters of the Palestinians – it takes quite some doing to get ahead of the likes of Netanyahu. Please comment“. While in his article Darius Shahtahmasebi wonders why the world is not doing anything to stop the Israelis (“Why haven’t Iran, Syria, and/or Hezbollah in Lebanon responded directly?“), my reader is more specific and wonders why Putin (or Russia) specifically is not only “permitting” Israel to bomb Syria but even possibly “supporting” the Zionist Entity.
I often see that question in emails and in comments, so I wanted to address this issue today.
First, we need to look at some critical assumption implied by this question. These assumptions are:
- That Russia can do something to stop the Israelis
- That Russia should (or even is morally obliged to) do something.
Let me begin by saying that I categorically disagree with both of these assumptions, especially the 2nd one. Let’s take them one by one.
Assumption #1: Russia can stop the Israeli attacks on Syria
How? I think that the list of options is fairly obvious here. Russian options range from diplomatic action (such as private or public protests and condemnations, attempts to get a UNSC Resolution passed) to direct military action (shooting down Israeli aircraft, “painting” them with an engagement radar to try to scare them away or, at least, try to intercept Israeli missiles).
Trying to reason with the Israelis or to get them to listen to the UN has been tried by many countries for decades, and if there is one thing which is beyond doubt, it is that the Israelis don’t give a damn about what anybody has to say. So talking to them is just a waste of oxygen. What about threatening them? Actually, I think that this could work, but at what risk and price?
First of all, while I always said that the IDF’s ground forces are pretty bad, this is not the case with their air forces. In fact, their record is pretty good. Now if you look at where the Russian air defenses are, you will see that they are all concentrated around Khmeimim and Tartus (i.e. on the coast – ER ed). Yes, an S-400 has a very long range, but that range is dependent on many things including the size of the target, its radar-cross section, its electronic warfare capabilities, the presence of specialized EW aircraft, altitude, etc. The Israelis are skilled pilots who are very risk averse, so they are very careful about what they do. Finally, the Israelis are very much aware of where the Russians are themselves and where there missiles are. I think that it would be pretty safe to say that the Israelis make sure they keep a minimal safe distance between themselves and the Russians, if only to avoid any misunderstanding. But let’s say that the Russians did have a chance to shoot down an Israeli aircraft – what would be the likely Israeli reaction to such a shooting? In this article Darius Shahtahmasebi writes: “Is it because Israel reportedly has well over 200 nukes all “pointed at Iran, and there is little Iran and its allies can do to take on such a threat?” I don’t see the Israelis using nukes on Russian forces; however, that does in no way mean that the Russians when dealing with Israel should not consider the fact that Israel is a nuclear armed power ruled by racist megalomaniacs. In practical terms this means this: “should Russia (or any other country) risk a military clash with Israel over a few destroyed trucks or a weapons and ammunition dump”? I think that the obvious answer is clearly ‘no’.
While this is the kind of calculation the USA simply ignores (at least officially – hence all the saber-rattling against the DPRK), Russia is ruled by a sane and responsible man who cannot make it a habit of simply waltzing into a conflict, hence the Russian decision not to retaliate in kind against the shooting down of the Russian SU-24 by the Turks. If the Russians did not retaliate against the Turks shooting down one of their own aircraft, they sure ain’t gonna attack the Israelis when they attack a non-Russian target!
There are also simply factual issues to consider: even if some Russian air-defense systems are very advanced and could shoot down X number of Israeli aircraft, they are nowhere near numerous enough to prevent the entire Israeli air force from saturating them. In fact, both Israel and CENTCOM simply have such a numbers advantage over the relatively small Russian contingent that they both could over-run the Russian defenses, even if they would take losses in the process.
So yes, the Russians probably could stop one or a few Israeli attacks, but if the Israelis decided to engage in a sustained air campaign against targets in Syria, there is nothing the Russians could do short of going to war with Israel. So here again, a very basic strategic principle fully applies: you never want to start an escalatory process you can neither control nor win. Put simply this means: if the Russians shoot back – they lose, and the Israelis win. It’s really that simple and both sides know it (armchair strategists apparently don’t).
And this begs a critical look at the second assumption:
Assumption #2: Russia has some moral duty to stop the Israeli attacks on Syria
This is the one which most baffles me. Why in the world would anybody think that Russia owes anybody anywhere on the planet any type of protection?! For starters, when is the last time somebody came to the help of Russia? I don’t recall anybody in the Middle-East offering their support to Russia in Chechnia, Georgia or, for that matter, the Ukraine! How many countries in the Middle East have recognized South Ossetia or Abkhazia (and compare that with the Kosovo case!)? Where was the Muslim or Arab “help” or “friendship” towards Russia when sanctions were imposed and the price of oil dropped? Remind me – how exactly did Russia’s “friends” express their support for Russia over, say, the Donbass or Crimea?
Can somebody please explain to me why Russia has some moral obligation towards Syria or Iran or Hezbollah when not a single Muslim or Arab country has done anything to help the Syrian government fight against the Takfiris? Where is the Arab League!? Where is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation?!
Is it not a fact that Russia has done more in Syria than all the countries of the Arab League and the OIC combined?!
Where do the Arab and Muslims of the Middle East get this sense of entitlement which tells them that a faraway country which struggles with plenty of political, economic and military problems of its own has to do more than the immediate neighbors of Syria do?!
Putin is the President of Russia, and he is first and foremost accountable to the Russian people to whom he has to explain every Russian casualty and even every risk he takes. It seems to me that he is absolutely right when he acts first and foremost in defense of the people who elected him and not anybody else.
By the way – Putin was very clear about why he was ordering a (very limited) Russian military intervention in Syria: to protect Russian national interests by, for example, killing crazy Takfiris in Syria so as not to have to fight them in the Caucasus and the rest of Russia. At no time and in no way did any Russian official refer to any kind of obligation of Russia towards Syria or any other country in the region. True, Russia did stand by President Assad, but that was not because of any obligation towards him or his country, but because the Russians always insisted that he was the legitimate President of Syria and that only the Syrian people had the right to replace (or keep) him. And, of course, it is in the Russian national interest to show that; unlike the USA, Russia stands by her allies. But none of that means that Russia is now responsible for the protection of the sovereignty of the Syrian airspace or territory.
As far as I am concerned, the only country which has done even more than Russia for Syria is Iran and, in lieu of gratitude, the Arab countries “thank” the Iranians by conspiring against them with the USA and Israel. Hassan Nasrallah is absolutely spot on when the calls all these countries traitors and collaborators of the AngloZionist Empire.
There is something deeply immoral and hypocritical in this constant whining that Russia should do more when, in reality, Russia and Iran are the only two countries doing something meaningful (and Hezbollah, of course!).
Now let me address a few typical questions:
Question #1: but aren’t Syria, Iran and Hezbollah Russian allies?
Yes and no. Objectively – yes. Formally – no. What this means is that while these three entities do have some common objectives, they are also independent and they all have some objectives not shared by others. Furthermore, they have no mutual defense treaty and this is why neither Syria, nor Iran nor Hezbollah retaliated against Turkey when the Turks shot down the Russian SU-24. While some might disagree, I would argue that this absence of a formal mutual defense treaty is a very good thing if only because it prevents Russian or Iranian forces in Syria from becoming “tripwire” forces which, if attacked, would require an immediate response. In a highly dangerous and explosive situation like the Middle East, the kind of flexibility provided by the absence any formal alliances is a big advantage for all parties involved.
Question #2 : does that mean that Russia is doing nothing or even supporting Israel?
Of course not! In fact, Netanyahu even traveled to Moscow to make all sorts of threats, and he returned home with nothing (Russian sources even report that the Israelis ended up shouting at their Russian counterparts). Let’s restate here something which ought to be obvious to everybody: Russian intervention in Syria was an absolute, total and unmitigated disaster for Israel (I explain that in detail in this article). If the Russians had any kind of concern for Israeli interests they would never have intervened in Syria in the first place! However, that refusal to let Israel dictate Russian policies in the Middle East (or elsewhere) does not at all mean that Russia can simply ignore the very real power of the Israelis, not only because of their nukes, but also because of their de facto control of the US government.
Question #3: so what is really going on between Russia and Israel?
As I have explained elsewhere, the relationship between Russia and Israel is a very complex and multi-layered one, and nothing between those two countries is really black or white. For one thing, there is a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Russia at which Putin has been chipping away over the years, but only in very small and incremental steps. The key for Putin is to do what needs to be done to advance Russian interests but without triggering an internal or external political crisis. This is why the Russians are doing certain things, but rather quietly.
First, they are re-vamping the aging Syrian air defenses not only with software updates, but also with newer hardware. They are also, of course, training Syrian crews. This does not mean that the Syrians could close their skies to Israeli aircraft, but that gradually the risks of striking Syria would go up and up with each passing month. First, we would not notice this, but I am confident that a careful analysis of the types of targets the Israelis will strike will go down and further down in value, meaning the Syrians will become more and more capable of defending their most important assets.
Second, it is pretty obvious that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are working synergistically. For example, the Russians and Syrians have integrated their air defenses which means that now the Syrians can “see” much further than their own radar would allow them to. Furthermore, consider the number of US cruise missiles which never made it to the Syrian air base Trump wanted to bomb: it is more or less admitted by now that this was the result of Russian EW countermeasures.
Finally, the Russians are clearly “covering” for Hezbollah and Iran politically by refusing to consider them as pariahs which is what Israel and the USA have been demanding all along. This is why Iran is treated as a key player by the Russian-sponsored peace process, while the USA and Israel are not even invited.
So the truth of the matter is simple: the Russians will not directly oppose the Israelis, but what they will do is quietly strengthen Iran and Hezbollah, which is not only much safer but also much more effective.
We live in a screwed-up and dysfunctional society which, following decades of US domination, conflates war and aggression with strength, which implicitly accepts the notion that a “great country” is one which goes on some kind of violent rampage on a regular basis and which always resorts to military force to retaliate against any attack. I submit that the Russian and Iranian leaders are much more sophisticated then that. The same goes for the Hezbollah leadership, by the way. Remember when the Israelis (with the obvious complicity of some members of the Syrian regime, by the way) murdered Imad Mughniyeh? Hezbollah promised to retaliate, but so far, almost a decade later, they have not (or, at least, not officially). Some will say that Hezbollah’s threats were empty words – I totally disagree. When Hassan Nasrallah promises something, you can take it to the bank. But Hezbollah leaders are sophisticated enough to retaliate when the time is right and on their own terms. And think about the Iranians who, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, have been in the crosshairs of both the USA and Israel, and who never gave either one of them the pretext to strike.
When you are much more powerful than your opponent, you can be stupid and rely on brute, dumb force. At least for the short to middle term. Eventually, as we see with the USA today, this kind of aggressive stupidity backfires and ends up being counterproductive. But when you are smaller, weaker or even just still in the process of recovering your potential strength, you have to act with much more caution and sophistication. This is why all the opponents of the AngloZionist Empire (including Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela) do their utmost to avoid using force against the AngloZionists even when it would be richly deserved. The one exception to this rule is Kim Jong-un, who has chosen a policy of hyperinflated threats which, while possibly effective (he seems to have outwitted Trump, at least so far), is also very dangerous and one which none of the Resistance countries want to have any part of.
The Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah are all “grown adults” (in political terms), and Assad is learning very fast, and they all understand that they are dealing with a “monkey with a hand grenade” (this fully applies to both Israeli and US leaders) which combines a nasty personality, a volatile temper, a primitive brain and a hand grenade big enough to kill everybody in the room. Their task is to incapacitate that monkey without having it pull the pin. In the case of the Israeli strikes on Syria, the primary responsibility to respond in some manner would fall either on the target of the strikes (usually Hezbollah) or on the nation whose sovereignty was violated (Syria). And both could, in theory, retaliate (by using tactical missiles for example). Yet they chose not to, and that is the wise and correct approach. As for the Russians, this is simply and plainly not their business.
One more thing. Make no mistake – the Israeli (and US!) propensity to use force as a substitute for diplomacy is a sign of weakness, not of strength. More, accurately, their use of force, or the threat of force, is the result of their diplomatic incompetence. While to the unsophisticated mind the systematic use of force might appear as an expression of power, history shows that brute force can be defeated when challenged not directly, but by other means. This is, by necessity, a slow process, much slower than a (mostly entirely theoretical) “quick victory”, but an ineluctable one nonetheless. In purely theoretical terms, the use of force can roughly have any one of the following outcomes: defeat, stalemate, costly victory, and a relatively painless victory. That last one is exceedingly rare, and the use of force mostly results in one of the other outcomes. Sometimes the use of force is truly the only solution, but I submit that the wise political leader will only resort to it when all other options have failed and when vital interests are at stake. In all other situation a “bad peace is preferable to a good war”.
Contrary to the hallucinations of the Neocons, Russia is absolutely not a “resurgent USSR” and Putin has no desire whatsoever to rebuild the Soviet Union. Furthermore, there is no meaningful constituency in Russia for any such “imperial” plans (well, there are always some lunatics everywhere, but in Russia they are, thank God, a tiny powerless minority). Furthermore, the new Russia is most definitely not “anti-USA” in the sense of trying to counter every US imperial or hegemonic move. This might be obvious to many, but I get so many questions about why Russia is not doing more to counter the USA in Africa, Latin America or Asia that I feel that it is, alas, still important to remind everybody of a basic principle of international law and common sense: problems in country X are for country X to deal with. Russia has no more business than the USA in “solving” country X’s problems. Furthermore, country X’s problems are usually best dealt with by country X’s immediate neighbors, not by megalomaniacal messianic superpowers who feel that they ought to “power project” because they are somehow “indispensable” or because “manifest destiny” has placed upon them the “responsibility” to “lead” the world. All this terminology is just the expression of a pathological and delusional imperial mindset which has cost Russia and the Soviet Union an absolutely horrendous price in money, energy, resources and blood (for example, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was justified in terms of the “internationalist duty” of the Soviet Union and people to help a “brotherly nation”). While this kind of nonsense is still 100% mainstream in the poor old USA, it is absolutely rejected in modern Russia. For all the personal credibility of Putin with the Russian people, even he could not get away with trying to militarily intervene, never mind police the whole planet, unless truly vital Russian interests were threatened (Crimea was such a very rare case). Some will deplore this; I personally very much welcome it, but the truth is that “the Russians are *not* coming”.