Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was long accustomed to calling the Kremlin and asking to talk to President Vladimir Putin when he had a problem with Russian allies in Syria. Sometimes, he flew to Moscow or Sochi for a few hours of face-to-face conversation. But of late, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report, Israel’s prime minister’s office, its high command and security chiefs are finding it more convenient to work with the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his staff, while holding the direct Netanyahu-Putin track in reserve for special problems. Communications with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are kept to a minimum.
And so, in the last couple of weeks, when Israeli leaders were troubled by two events, they called Shoigu’s office for clarifications. The first was when the offensive launched on Feb. 17 on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, by the Syrian government, Hizballah and other -pro-Iranian forces, was imminent.
The second occurred when two pairs of Russian, fifth-generation stealth Su-57 planes suddenly landed at the Khmeimim air base near Latakia on Feb. 19 and Feb. 23.
The Israelis turned to Shoigu’s office for two reasons:
- They calculated that their requests for clarifications would be put by the defense minister before President Putin, who has the last word in such cases. If the minister’s reply was not satisfactory, they still had the option of appealing directly to Putin.
- Israel’s government and military-intelligence officials find Shoigu and his staff expeditious, efficient and clear in their responses – often more so than the presidential bureau in cases when Netanyahu makes a direct approach. (He last met Putin on Jan. 29 and they talked by phone on Feb. 10, straight after the massive Israeli air bombardment in Syria.)
- It happens sometimes that when Putin says he gave orders to Russian military chiefs in Syria to meet Israel’s request, they fail to respond. Israeli officials then ponder whether those orders went to the wrong address or they are ignored because the Russian officers can’t understand what Israel wants. Such gaps in perception do not occur when Israeli military or intelligence officers channel their requests and questions through the defense minister, who usually has them implemented in full.
Ahead of the East Ghouta battle, Israel asked Gen. Shoigu for an assurance that when it was over, the Syrian-pro-Iranian assault would not be carried southwest by its momentum up to the Syrian-Israeli border on the Golan. The Russian general replied on the spot that Moscow had undertaken not to permit either Syrian, Iranian, Shiite militia or Hizballah forces to enter Israeli and Jordanian border regions.
This assurance was needed to complement the security zone Israel is developing by providing a group of local Syrian militias the arms, funds and logistical aid for keeping those hostile forces at bay. DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that, in the past two weeks, Israel has expanded this security zone up to the region of As-Suwaida on the slopes of Jabal Druze, which lies some 200km east of the Israeli-Syrian Golan border.
The second question put to the Russian defense minister concerned the deployment of the high-tech Russian Su-57 planes to Syria. Israel wanted to know why four of these advanced planes were sent to Syria, if not to do battle with the US Air Force’s advanced F-22 stealth fighters, and the Israel Air Force’s American-made F-35s.
Moscow’s answer came back without delay. On Sunday, Feb. 25, Israel learned that the Russian fifth-generation Su-57 fighter jets “were deployed to Syria to test radar systems and electronic warfare.” Furthermore, it was said, “The Su-57s will not take part in combat missions in Syria.” This message was run by the Russian Kommersant daily, which has good connections with the Defense Ministry, together with a further quote from a Russian military source. He disclosed that the decision for the Syrian deployment was made during last year’s MAKS air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow. The source said that another goal of the deployment [to Syria] was to promote the products of Russia’s military-industrial complex by showcasing Russian military activity in Syria.
These assurances were also received in Washington and taken as a message to the Trump administration that Moscow is not planning to pit its most advanced stealth fighters against American F-22 jets.
All the same, DEBKA Weekly’s sources are still wondering why Moscow found it necessary to deploy four of these planes, when one or, at most two, would have been enough to “test radar systems” and showcase an outstanding product of Russia’s military industry.
Washington and Jerusalem are meanwhile setting the issue aside and keeping watch on the growing disparity between Shoigu and foreign minister Lavrov in their approach to the Syrian complex. While the defense minister appears bent on de-escalating tensions, Lavrov is more aggressive, possibly as part of the Kremlin’s effort to please Tehran. And indeed, foreign minister Mohamed Javad Zarif was in the audience on Feb. 19 when Lavrov addressed a symposium at the Valdai Club in Moscow and accused the US of taking “provocative measures… to partition Syria.” He went on to warn “United States colleagues not to play with fire.”
US and Israeli observers conclude that Lavrov was chosen to spearhead Moscow’s policy of cooperation with Iran in the Middle East (See a separate item on this development.), and that Shoigu is not altogether happy at having to implement this policy on the ground in Syria.
The two senior Russian ministers have long been at odds on Moscow’s policies for Iran and Syria (as DEBKA Weekly 762 first reported on December 15, 2017). Their differences may affect the coming developments in Syria and perhaps even bear on wider US-Russian rivalry in the Middle East.