March 18, 2016 | JNS.org
With the Russian drawdown in Syria, Israel seeks reassurances
On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise announcement that he would withdraw the “main part” of Russian forces from Syria, shocking many of the countries concerned about the ongoing conflict in the country, including Israel. Putin’s move came as peace talks began between the Syrian government and opposition and rebel groups in Geneva, Switzerland, following a cease-fire in Syria that was announced in late February by Russia and the United States.
“I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled. With the participation of the Russian military…the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects,” Putin reportedly told his government ministers.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, echoed that view, telling JNS.org that Russia’s involvement in Syria is a power play to increase its international stature and protect its interests.
“One of Russia’s reasons was to regain a foothold in the Middle East as a power broker,” Ottolenghi said. “And to preserve and control its access to the Mediterranean at its naval base in Tartus.”
Otherwise, he said, “Russia’s navy would be at Turkey’s whim to allow its access through the Bosphorus” strait.
Yet for Israel, Russia’s siding with Syria—and thereby with Iran and Hezbollah, who are supporting the Syrian government—presents a complex challenge for the Jewish state’s relations with Moscow.
Ottolenghi said that unlike Israel, Russia doesn’t view the radical Shi’a Islam promoted by Iran and Hezbollah as a major threat.
“Overall, the Russians don’t view Shi’a Islam, even in its radical form, so much as a threat to them. Most of their problems, especially the homegrown ones, are [from] Sunni Salafi extremists,” Ottolenghi said.
“While I don’t think they see it as a problem, they also don’t care that much. If the Israelis bomb Hezbollah, I don’t think Russia is going to lift a finger to prevent that,” he added.
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