Rare insights into Moscow’s Middle East strategy were offered to Israeli leaders by Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergey Shoigu, No. 2 in the Kremlin hierarchy, during his first visit to Israel on October 16-18.
Although formally a guest of Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, his mission was to set Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces high command straight on Russian strategy in Syria – most particularly with regard to Iran.
Lieberman was not on Shoigu’s short list of confidential recipients. Although the Russian-speaking minister was once close to Kremlin leaders, he was not privy to the briefings given Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott. This was a serious blow to his prestige.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources can reveal here for the first time some of the key points the Russian visitor made in those briefings.
Most importantly, Israel must understand that wherever Russia has a military presence, warfare cannot break out against its will. With the weight of a world power behind him, the Russian minister emphasized that should Iran, Syria or Hizballah decide to make war on Israel, Moscow would not allow it to happen. Local minor infractions may occur – such as the Syrian missile attack on Israeli jets on the day Shoigu landed in Tel Aviv – but Moscow is resolved not to allow such incidents to burgeon into a full-blown or even a limited conflict.
Israel had gained a protective shield from the presence of Russian army, air force and navy in Syria, Shoigu insisted, and its leaders ought to rely on those forces to prevent the outbreak of a comprehensive war offensive led by Iran.
The second key point repeatedly made by the Russian minister was that Moscow would not allow Israel’s borders to heat up as fronts of aggression, a scenario which has given Israeli leaders sleepless nights. He avoided elaborating on this pledge and ducked pressing Israeli questions for details. Consequently, it was not clear whether his assurance applied to the Lebanese as well as the Syrian borderand therefore covered potential Hizballah aggression from Lebanon as well as Syria.
This most troubling point was still vague when Shoigu ended his visit.
He was a bit more forthcoming on other areas of concern.
Russia was not aware of the presence of Iranian troops in Syria, aside from a small number of officers, he said, and challenged Netanyahu and Eisenkott for proof to back up their claim. He also knocked down a report that Iran was about to set up an air and sea base in Syria. Russia would not permit this, he said.
As for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated threat to invade Syria and conquer its northern regions, especially embattled Idlib, Shoigu said firmly that Moscow would not let the Turkish army invade Syria – and certainly not seize control of Idlib. “There will be no Turkish conquests deep inside Syria,” he said.
His words were quickly borne out, say DEBKA Weekly’s military sources. Ankara refrained from following through on its announcement of a major Turkish operation in Idlib, and limited itself to posting eight lookout points just inside its northern border. There were no signs of preparations for a large-scale incursion.
On the Kurdish question, the Russian minister spoke at length on the Kurds of Syria. Moscow, he said, had an interest in safeguarding the status of the three Kurdish enclaves of Hasake-Qamishli, Kobane and Afrin, which must continue to exist and enjoy a large measure of autonomy within the Syrian state.
(A separate article covers Russian policy towards the Kurds of northern Syria.)
Shoigu disclosed that Moscow had also given Jordan a commitment to safeguard its border with Syria, similar to the one he now offered Israel.
The Russian minister finally outlined the Kremlin’s plans for Syria’s political future. He spoke of the “de-escalation” process ongoing at present between the various military forces operating in the field – both on behalf of the government and the rebels, through the creation of separation zones. Moscow sees this process as evolving into the gradual dying-down of war hostilities, making way for a process of “transition.” During that stage, Moscow would compel President Bashar Assad to sit down with the Syrian opposition and accept a power-sharing arrangement.
Were Netanyahu and Eisenkott persuaded that Moscow could be relied on to take care of the threats building up from Israel’s northern borders? The Russian minister will no doubt have reported to Putin that the Israelis were not happy about being left up in the air over Hizballah, the cause of their main security headache. They see Iran’s Lebanese proxy popping up everywhere in Syria and free to do as it pleases.
Straight after the Shoigu visit, Lieberman and Eisenkott travelled to Washington and will have reported to US Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on the briefing they received form Shoigu.
Although not entirely satisfied, Israel, like other regional powers, sees that the only power pursuing initiatives in the region is not the United States but Russia. Its leaders are therefore not shutting the door on Moscow’s overtures.
Indeed, the IDF’s reprisal for the five rockets which exploded on the Golan on Saturday, Oct. 20, could have been harsher than it was, although, after the event, Lieberman blamed Hizballah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah for orchestrating the Golan attack and stressed it was no errant spillover.