Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Moscow, on May 31, for talks with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other Russian top brass. Lieberman was accompanied by several of his country’s top military officials, including the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) military intelligence chief, Major General Tamir Hyman. The visit was described by both sides as highly important. It was apparently successful in promoting a deal to deescalate Israeli-Iranian tensions in Syria, with Russia acting as a major go-between and powerbroker. Shoigu was pleased and invited Lieberman to attend the May 9 grand Victory Day military parade in Moscow “next year,” since this time the Israeli defense minister could not make it (Militarynews.ru, May 31).
IDF attack planes have been hitting Iranian-connected bases and military installations in Syria for months, destroying hardware and killing Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel, Hezbollah fighters, and members of other Iranian-sponsored militias. Casualties have also included Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers manning anti-aircraft batteries. The most massive Israeli strike occurred on May 10, just a couple of hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Moscow, where he had attended Victory Day celebrations in Red Square and held talks with President Vladimir Putin. The IDF went into action after missiles launched by pro-Iranian forces allegedly hit Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, though without causing any injury or much damage. Reportedly, some six SAA servicemen, 21 pro-Iranian militia fighters and 11 Iranians were killed in this IDF raid (Militarynews.ru, May 12).
In Russia, news services connected to the defense establishment and to oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, went berserk after the IDF released footage of a guided projectile hitting and destroying a Russian-made anti-aircraft Pantsir-S1 system commanded by the SAA. The Pantsir-S1 is a new weapon that is an essential component of the national air- and missile-defense shield Russia is building. The long-range S-300s and S-400s, as well as future S-500s, are designed to shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles coming in from far off, providing an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability. The shorter-range Pantsir-S1s are designed to defend the long-range launchers, radars and command posts against direct enemy attacks intended to break up the A2/AD bubble. The fact a Pantsir-S1 battery failed to defend not only its designated target, but also itself against an IDF aerial attack undermines the entire architecture of Russia’s future A2/AD and missile-defense capability that is being built at great expense. It also undercuts Russian efforts to market the Pantsir-S1 for export. Russian military experts called the IDF attack “cowardly and treacherous” (Riafan.ru, May 12).
Prigozhin is a businessman from St. Petersburg, known in the Kremlin court as “the cook” because he began his career in food catering for Putin. Prigozhin reportedly has business interests in Syria and has been bankrolling mercenaries from the private military company (Chastnaya Voennaya Companiya—ChVK) “Wagner” who fight with forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad. Prigozhin has also been accused of involvement in Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 elections in the United States (see EDM, February 26, April 19).
Despite threats of payback after the IDF attacks, the Kremlin had other plans. Tehran’s reaction to the IDF attacks was also unusually muted (Kommersant, May 11). Iran publicly indicated it wanted a deal in Syria with Israel and was seeking Russian help and mediation. A Lebanese-born religious scholar (a son of a grand ayatollah), Sheikh Sadiq al-Nabulsi, who describes himself as “close to Hezbollah,” in an interview with the daily Kommersant, outlined a possible Moscow-guaranteed deal: Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian forces would “move away” from the IDF positions in the Golan Heights “to satisfy Israel,” while pro-Assad and Russian forces would move into rebel-held parts of Daraa and Quneitra provinces in the southwest Syrian border area. At present, this portion of Syria is within a so-called “de-escalation” or “safe” zone, guaranteed by Russia, Jordan and the US (Kommersant, May 28).
In 2017, when the “de-escalation zones” were established, the Syrian opposition groups that attended the Astana talks (sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran) apparently believed the promises of a lasting ceasefire and humanitarian aid. Mohammed Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam—a coalition of Islamist and Salafist units operating in the Damascus area, in the city of Douma and Ghouta—was the most high-ranking opposition figure to travel to Astana (see EDM, April 13, 2017). But subsequent ceasefires were not honored and humanitarian convoys were blocked, while the rebel resistance was crushed by relentless bombing. The only choice the rebel fighters received from Russian intermediaries was to either surrender and join pro-al-Assad forces or abandon all their heavy weapons and take free buses with family members to the still rebel-held Idlib province, in the north. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it, “The Ghouta de-escalation zone has served its purpose, with the al-Assad government in full control.” Lavrov added, “Now it is time to deal with the southern zone” (Militarynews.ru, May 3).
After the Lieberman/Shoigu talks in Moscow, a Russian-Israeli-Iranian deal seems to have been struck. According to Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, “[I]t was a good meeting, and the Iranians will be moving out.” A well-established Moscow-based Iranian lobbyist, Rajab Safarov, told Interfax, “Iran will pull back tens of kilometers” from the Israeli Golan position and “will ask pro-Iranian forces to pull out,” if Moscow guarantees that the IDF stops its bombing attacks in Syria (Militarynews.ru, June 1). A top Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, told this author that “an agreement has almost been reached.” Apparently, Israel also wants a guarantee Iran will not deploy anywhere in Syria any long-range weapons (missiles) that may possibly threaten Israel.
Of course, the Israelis understand: Moscow wants the IDF to stand down, while the al-Assad regime and its allies “liberate” the southern “de-escalation zone” by bombing it into submission, as happened recently in Ghouta. But the IDF does not back any party in the Syrian civil war and is ready to see al-Assad remain in control as long as the Iranians are not allowed to turn Syria into a base from which to attack Israel. It is up to Washington to allow or disallow a Russian-led assault in the southern “de-escalation zone,” which would surely involve heavy bombing and probably the deployment of ChVK Wagner among other forces. If, in the end, Moscow manages to bend Iran, Israel, the US and the rest of the international community to its will, suggestions of Russian dominance in the region will not be hyperbole anymore.