While all eyes were fixed last week on the wrangling over the evidence of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, two of Bashar Assad’s stalwart backers, Moscow and Hizballah, forged a furtive pact that was more far-reaching than their collaboration in the war for preserving the Damascus regime. In the immediate term, Moscow has acquired a potential client for its arms and a new sphere of influence in Beirut.
This little-noticed deal was put together after Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was closeted for three days with Iranian and Hizballah military officials in Beirut for briefings on the state of the Syrian conflict.
The closing session took place Saturday, April 27, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and military sources report, when the Russian official and Hizballah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah met to wrap up final arrangements for deliveries of Russian military assistance in the event of a major new turn in the Syrian conflict.
Examples were an outbreak of hostilities between Syrian troops and US forces massing on any of Syria’s borders (See last week’s DEBKA-Net-Weekly: Obama’s 20,000 troop surge for Jordan); US air and missile strikes against targets in Syria; or a decision by US President Barack Obama to let Syrian rebels have the heavy weapons they have long demanded.
(Tuesday, April 30, US Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said, "Options are ready… and if it becomes clear to me or if I'm ordered to do so we will act, but at this point, that hasn't occurred. We've been planning, we've been developing options, [and] we are looking to determine whether these options remain valid as conditions change.")
Moscow consolidates backing for Syria, benefits Hizballah
On the Russian side, Bogdanov reviewed the possible deployment of Russian marines to Lebanon and their transfer under Hizballah armed escort to Syria. Operating under directives from the Russian military general staff in Moscow, the marines would seize control of Syria’s main highways, military bases and the sensitive infrastructure vital for keeping the Assad regime and loyal Syrian military units fully functioning.
To consolidate Moscow’s unfolding ties with Hizballah, Bogdanov pledged Russian air cover against an Israeli Air Force attack. It would come either from Russian planes based in the Caucasus and the Black Sea regions, or missile interceptors carried aboard Russian naval ships.
Straight after his conversation with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Nasrallah placed his militia’s combat forces on war alert against Israel and started calling up reserves.
Monday, April 29, his deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem was dispatched to Tehran to report to Hizballah’s Iranian bosses on the deals Nasrallah had set up with the Russian official.
The next day, in a speech broadcast on his Al Manar television channel, a swaggering Nasrallah conveyed a warning: “Syria has true friends in the world who will not let [the country] fall to the US, Israel or Islamic radicals,” he said, so putting Bashar Assad’s enemies on notice that Moscow and Tehran were both on hand with military assets for saving the Syrian ruler from any US or Israeli offensive for his downfall.
First Russian arms for Hizballah
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources disclose that, in another unprecedented gesture of favor for Hizballah, Bogdanov guaranteed his government would make up any weapons shortages incurred by the Shiite group – whether in fighting in Syria or against Israel – in the event of Iran’s supply route to its Lebanese proxy being cut off by hostilities in the Syrian arena.
Tuesday, Moscow suspended civilian air flights over Syria after Russian military sources reported that Monday, April 29, two missiles had targeted a Nordwind Airlines plane carrying 160 passengers, as it flew over Syria. The Russian official could not identity the source of the fire but was sure the intention was to bring the plane down. The pilots foiled this by evasive maneuvers.
No other sources confirmed the incident. But it provided Moscow with a pretext for rerouting future civilian flights through Lebanese instead of Syrian air space.
Hizballah gains its first world-class power patron
Moscow and Hizballah have conducted their transactions as highhandedly as though Lebanon had no president or government to consider. Their freedom to treat this small country as they please and use it as their private playing field is one of the less obvious consequences of the continually spiraling hostilities centering on Syria.
Power centers are on the move. Damascus no longer holds the whip hand for its small neighbor and traditional sphere of influence, but Moscow and Hizballah, who bestride Beirut as their stage with Tehran pulling strings in the background – and no interference by the US or Israel.
Hizballah has rewarded its new sponsor with a stake in Lebanon as their common back yard for the Syrian war.
Freshly empowered, the speech Nasrallah delivered Tuesday night, April 30, attracted more than usual attention for pointers to his next steps.
It was evident from his tone that Hizballah had gone up in the world: For the first time in its history, Hizballah, branded by the United States a terrorist organization, has gained the patronage of one of the five world powers, Russia. After seven years of defying a UN Security Council resolution to disarm, the Lebanese Hizballah, like Syria, now enjoys the protection of a veto-wielding power at that same UN Security Council.
Nasrallah guards his back against Israeli attack
However, while riding high, Nasrallah also took care to move out of the line of fire of potential enemies which may enter the Syrian war in future. He therefore made a point in his speech of segregating Lebanon, and therefore Hizballah, from current and future military action in Syria.
He “forgot” to mention the 5,000 armed adherents he has sent to Syria to fight the rebels alongside Assad’s army, and pretended he had never heard of the drone launched from Lebanon which Israeli warplanes downed opposite Haifa on April 25.
Israel’s surprise call-up of reserves for an exercise on the Lebanese and Syrian borders on the day of his speech was likewise brushed off: It was solely related to the Syrian war and had nothing to do with Hizballah, he said.
(See the separate article in this issue on Israel’s preparations for war in Syria.)
Our military sources can’t see the Hizballah leader’s pretense of aloofness from the Syria war holding up for long.
In any case, Jerusalem didn’t buy it. As the week wore on and the Russian-Hizballah deal took shape in Beirut, Israel’s official military statements fluctuated. Whereas the initial IDF communiqué Tuesday spoke of reservist forces massing for war along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon, the release of early Wednesday, May 1, was amended to refer to preparations for war with Lebanon. Syria had dropped out of the official announcement overnight.