Russian President Vladimir Putin shares the suspicions of intelligence sources in the Gulf that Israel had a partner in its two air strikes against Syria on May 3 and May 5, namely Turkish Air Force bombers with US command centers coordinating their operations.
Those suspicions were strengthened by the parallel meetings taking place Thursday, May 16, between President Barak Obama and Turkish Premier Tayiip Erdogan at the White House; and US Central Intelligence Director John Brennan with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon in Israel.
These suspicions have not been confirmed by direct evidence, but they are gaining wings around the region. If borne out, they would impact the Syrian conflict in four important respects:
1. The Obama administration will have embroiled the United States directly in the Syria war – contrary to the impression conveyed by US officialdom.
On Monday, May 13, after his talk with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama commented: “Frankly, sometimes, once … the furies have been unleashed in a situation like we’re seeing in Syria, it’s very hard to put things back together.”
2. This would be a landmark event, the first military operation of its kind launched jointly by the US, Turkey and Israel against an Arab ruler:
3. It would be the opening chord of an allied war in Syria unacknowledged by its participants.
4. Israel’s air strikes brought a Russian troop presence on Syrian soil out into the open with potentially more to come.
Israel’s stand-off missile strike in Syria – precursor for Iran?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources disclose that shortly after the Israeli air strikes, President Putin had the batteries brought out of their Syrian hideouts of S-300 (NATO code-named SA-10 Grumble) long-range surface-to-air missiles systems developed to defend against aircraft and cruise missile attack. He ordered the batteries with the Russian crews to be deployed at strategic spots in Syria.
The efforts to prevail upon Moscow to withhold the S-300s from Syria were therefore exercises in futility. The advanced weapons had been in place for some months as part of Moscow’s diplomatic and military plans for safeguarding Assad against a US attempt to depose him.
Putin had two additional considerations in mind:
a) The tactic employed in Israel’s first air strike on May 3 of firing stand-off missiles without going into Syrian air space gave its bombers the advantage of discounting Syrian air defenses.
The presence of S-300 missiles in Syria has put an end to this tactic, especially as Moscow views it as the precursor of an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. These air defense missiles have a range of 200 kilometers and so cover eastern Mediterranean airspace over Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.
b) According to the war talk going around Washington, President Obama’s best option for Syria would be an American air and missile blitz lasting two or three days for destroying most of Assad’s air bases and air defenses. The Syrian ruler might not be shaken off his seat, but he would lose the military assets which grant him an edge over the rebels.
Russian submarines as nuclear shield for Assad
By deploying the S-300s in Syria, the Russian leader has given the US, Israel and Turkey notice that Moscow will not tolerate any more air attacks on the regime in Damascus – unless they were willing to risk their warplanes being blown out of the sky by the powerful Russian interceptors.
For that reason, the crash of the Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter-bomber flying over the Syrian border Monday, May 13, made everyone jump in Washington, Ankara and Jerusalem. The first guess was that it had been downed by one of the new Russian missiles operated by Russian officers, just like the Turkish reconnaissance plane shot down last June while flying over Latakia. Information about how the Turkish plane came to crash is not yet in.
President Putin, too, was not yet done with steps for deterring foreign attacks on the Assad regime. Sunday, May 12, Russian Navy commander Adm. Viktor Chirkov announced from the Russian Black Sea’s command post at Sevastopol that a permanent staff of 20 officers would serve the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean. This fleet would consist of five to six warships – and, possibly, nuclear submarines.
This was no throwaway remark but the sting in the tail.
The deployment of nuclear subs in the Mediterranean will bolster Moscow’s guaranteed protection of Bashar Assad, recently extended to the Lebanese Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, with a nuclear shield.
Turkey as Assad’s whipping boy
The Russian ruler was unmoved by the attempts by Secretary Kerry and Prime Minister Cameron to defuse the discord between Moscow and the West and open the door for a diplomatic exit from the Syrian impasse. By sticking to his guns, Putin reduced to nil the prospects of an International conference on Syria getting anywhere, even if it does get off the ground in the first place.
In typical Assad style, Damascus made a point of its own: Saturday, May 11, two powerful car bombs ravaged the center of the Turkish town of Reyhanli in the border province of Hatay, killing up to 50 people and injuring scores. It took the Turkish security service MIT less then 24 hours to lay hands on the culprits. All nine suspects rounded up initially were Turkish citizens (another four were detained later). MIT officers knew exactly where the bomb cars had been smuggled across the border and hidden prior to the attack but were still unable to thwart it.
Assad had decided to make Turkey his whipping boy for the Israeli air raids, while reserving for Israel a stream of aggressive language. His spokesmen warned that Syrian missile commanders had been ordered to respond instantly to any further Israeli attacks without waiting for orders from Damascus; Syrian troops were authorized to cross the border into Israel and Palestinian terrorist organizations given free rein to start mounting attacks from Syrian territory.
The United States was not mentioned in any of the Syrian rhetoric.
Putin sticks to his guns regardless
Washington may be starting to appreciate that the Syrian ruler and his backers are on a winning streak judging from a comment Saturday, May 11, by the Washington Post’s Liz Sly in a report from Beirut.
She wrote that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his forces “are beginning to turn the tide of the country’s war,” explaining that Assad is “bolstered by a new strategy, the support of Iran and Russia and the assistance of fighters with Lebanon’s Hizballah movement.”
This reading confirms a situation which DEBKA-Net-Weekly has been reporting for three months, starting in March. But the Russian ruler will not be dissuaded from his course by Washington’s faint recognition of the state of play in Syria. He will continue to do all he can to solidify Assad’s gains before the wobbly Syrian wheel turns again.