The framework of the clash on the borders between Israel, the Lebanon and Syria is currently much more complicated than it appears.
Recently, namely in mid-January, a senior officer of the Israeli Defence Forces has publicly announced that Iran is organizing a peripheral command in the Lebanon, precisely in the Southern area – a region traditionally controlled by Hezbollah and now by most of the Lebanese regular army, which is traditionally funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The Lebanese Armed Forces are backed by the United States to the tune of over 1.5 billion dollars, but also by Saudi Arabia (3.5 billion US dollars), which operates also with funding for security, intelligence and territorial police.
Iran will grant additional funds to the Lebanese forces with a view to creating a stable link between Iran and the Mediterranean coast, which is also one of the grand strategy targets of the Shiite leadership in the Syrian war.
This will certainly change the Saudi and US attitude towards the Lebanese Armed Forces.
The Iranian strategic goals are designed to avoid being conditioned by Hezbollah’s tactical interests.
Said interests are not only against Israel. The excess of Iranian efforts and resources for the Lebanon and the clash with the “Zionist entity” – as they call Israel – does not absorb all Iranian strategic goals.
Iran wants to gain hegemony in a region stretching from the Lebanese Mediterranean coast to the Shiite areas of Afghanistan.
Nevertheless Iran’s operations in Syria are designed to creating the conditions for a simultaneous dual attack on Israel, starting from the Golan Heights and the Litani area, with or even without the “Party of God” of the Lebanese Shiites.
Suffice they avoid the anti-Iranian actions within the Lebanese State.
Hence the air clash, which occurred in Syria and in Israel on February 10, resulted in the loss of an Israeli F-16C aircraft belonging to the 110th Squadron, which had taken off from the Ramat David base. It also led to the loss of an F-15I aircraft hit, but not destroyed, by Bashar al-Assad’s air defence and damaged some jets hit by the Syrian anti-aircraft, as well as an Israeli helicopter hit in the skies of the Shebaa Farms. Finally an Iranian-made attack drone was shot down.
Obviously the Israeli pilots had received the explicit order of avoiding any Russian jets and the Israeli government is extremely careful not to hurt the feelings and undermine the strategic sensitivity of Russia, the new global leader in the Middle East.
Israel’s aircrafts were a Sufa F-16I and a Baaz F-15I.
The air defences of Assad and the Syrian Arab Army have also the Russian long-range S-125 and S-200 systems available.
The S-125 (NATO reporting name SA-3 GOA) is an old design missile with a range of 25 kilometres which, when modified – as happened during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s – can hit aircraft capable of reaching very high speed at various altitudes.
Conversely, the S-200 (NATO reporting name SA-5 Gammon) is a long-range missile (200-350 kilometres), but both types of Russian surface-to-air missiles are semi-automatically driven. Currently most batteries are equipped with systems for Airborne Early Warning and Control Defence (AEW).
The speed of both surface-to-air systems is still considerable.
It is therefore evident that, since the Russian Intelligence Services control both the single launching batteries of surface-to-air missiles and all the e-control networks of the Syrian, South Turkish, Lebanese and North Israeli space, Russia has given the green light for actions against the Israeli aircrafts and helicopters.
Hence it has decided – or possibly accepted others’ decision – to hit the Jewish aircrafts.
What is Israel’s and the other regional and global players’ strategic rationale in Syria?
The shooting down of the Israeli aircraft is a factor not to be neglected both tactically and geopolitically.
Two aircrafts lost are certainly a problem, but not an unresolvable one.
This is an operational and strategic factor to be studied carefully, a probable game-changer in the whole Syrian-Lebanese system.
Based on an initial assessment of facts, Israel lost air superiority in the Lebanese-Syrian region just when the Russian Federation sold or transferred to Bashar al-Assad’ Syria a system of S-400 surface-to-air missiles at the end of November 2015.
The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler), with a maximum range of 400 kilometres, can launch its missiles at a speed of 4.8 kilometres per second and can detect up to 36 or even 80 targets simultaneously – hence it is hard to be saturated.
It is also a weapon system that has already been sold to China in 2014 and to Saudi Arabia in October 2017.
Hence considering its full and unrestricted control over the Syrian airspace and Syria’s broad strategic region, evidently Russia has de facto endorsed the Israeli raids on targets located both in Syrian areas and in the Lebanon.
The Israeli raids are already significant.
Let us think about the Israeli air attack in early September 2017, with an operation in Masyaf, Western Syria – a mission carried out by Israel shortly after the United Nations had accused Bashar al-Assad’s government of the chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheykhoun, which had taken place in April 2017.
At the time, both the Russians and the Syrians of Assad’s government had reassured the United Nations and the other players that no one had ever used forbidden weapons.
However, those who were poisoned and unable to breathe were still in hospitals, so as to demonstrate the opposite of what had officially been declared by the Syrian-Russian military connection.
The ease with which the Syrian allies put Russia in difficulties vis-à-vis the West and the other global powers is a burden for it.
Hence what did Israel want and what does it want to demonstrate with these raids, the last of which was unsuccessful for “David’ slingshot”?
Firstly, it wants to make it clear to all regional players that the “red line” between the territory of the Jewish State and the territory of the Syrian-Lebanese State is still fully in force.
Secondly – but this is a strategically primary issue – Israel wants to show how dangerous it is for Iran to try and build its new forward bases in the border area between the Golan Heights and the Litani River in the Lebanon. Finally, Israel wants to ever more perfect its air attacks to avoid or postpone a ground attack.
The technologies for air attacks have already been largely developed.
As far as we know, they would be a mix of micro-intelligence on the ground and of new remotely-controlled, but high-precision weapons, as well as a new distribution of defence systems, built and deployed on the ground in such a way as to hit several thousand targets within one hour at most.
Certainly, in all likelihood, there is a new Iranian base south of Damascus.
A station mainly equipped with air forces, but fully managed and controlled by the Al Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, with the high probability of adding submarines in the coastal areas controlled by Hezbollah in the Lebanon.
Hence either a scenario of attack on Israel from a unified front in the North, between Syria, Golan and the Lebanese Litani area, or another even more dangerous scenario for Israel, in which the Jewish State would be attacked from the North and the South at the same time.
The first attack would take place according to the model already tested by Hezbollah in 2006, and also in 2004, but this time together with the Lebanese Armed Forces.
The second attack could take place when movements modelled on Hezbollah will be active and dangerous also in the Palestinian area east and south of Jerusalem, like the recently-established Al Sabiroun in the Gaza Strip.
Also the Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian organization founded in Gaza in 1979 from a previous network of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been based with its leaders in Damascus since 1988.
Currently, however, Iran’s funding is scarce for this Sunni organization that, since the very beginning, accepted and supported the 1979 Ayatollah Revolution, as also Yasser Arafat did.
It is always worth remembering it.
Indeed, there is close continuity between the “secular” and Marxist Palestinian uprising, which is still very much liked by the EU finest spirits, and the “radical” jihadist and Islamist twist that, for the amateurs of Middle East politics, appears to be a novelty with respect to the para-Soviet model of Yasser Arafat’s PLO and its many internal groups.
Iran’s relations with HAMAS are rhapsodic, precisely considering the close link – strengthened from 2011 onwards – between this Palestinian military structure, which also originated from a cell of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia.
In all likelihood, however, the timing of the combined attack from the South will be connected to the development and military preparation of Al Sabiroon, which shall be at least equal to Hezbollah’s.
According to some sources, however, Iran has already long arranged as many as 70,000 missiles in Syria, all targeted or targetable to Israel.
The Al Quds Force has also already deployed 5,000 soldiers in the area around Damascus and about 50 kilometres from the border with Israel.
Then there are the Shiite military groups, who often approach the border with Israel and sometimes cross it.
Furthermore, in Syria, Iran arms and trains Shiite battalions from the various regions of that country, such as Al Baqr and the Battalion 313.
The latter Syrian Shiite unit reminds of the number of Muhammad’s fighters in the Battle of Al-Badr, but it is actually called “The Great Apostle’s Brigade”, while it is worth recalling that the number 313 also regards the esoteric eschatology connected to the final coming of the Mahdi, He who will put an end to the world.
According to our sources, the Brigade 313 is still in the region of Homs where jihadists still operate in its Southern area.
Currently, however, the number of brigades or battalions of Syrian-origin Shiite militants, all trained by the Pasdaran, is equal to five units, all located between Central and Southern Syria and all with autonomous commands, but actually directed by Iranian officials of the Al Quds Force.
The operations of camouflage and strategic deception of the many Iranian missiles were all directly authorized by Bashar al-Assad and conducted by Iran and Hezbollah with the active support of the Syrian Arab Army.
Again according to said sources, within a year from now, the number of small or large missiles is expected to reach over 500,000 (according to Iranian and Lebanese programmers).
A saturation of airspace that, according to Iran experts, is supposed to block the reactions of the Israeli’s space protection system.
During the Israeli State visit to Russia of January 29, 2018, Netanyahu officially asked Vladimir Putin to contain Iran’s anti-Israeli operations in Syria.
It is also very likely that the Israeli leader provided to Vladimir Putin also a good amount of intelligence on the Iranian threat to the Jewish State from within Syria.
Furthermore, the strategic divergence between Russia and Iran on the Syrian territory is already quite evident and essentially unresolvable, considering the current situation on the ground.
But certainly Russia has no interest in creating further tension with Israel.
Hence probably the Russian authorization for the Syrian (and possibly Iranian) anti-aircraft operations is the last act of a sequence of strategic signals between Russia and the United States on the Syrian issue.
In fact, while it is true that Iran is absolutely essential in Syria for the Russian Federation, with a view to avoiding Russia’s too heavy engagement in favour of Assad, certainly Russia does not want to create a political and strategic system in which Bashar al-Assad is subjected solely to Iran’s will.
Once finished the clashes on the ground, Russia will redesign the Syrian map, thus preventing the country from splitting – also implicitly and subtly – into various regions, all with a different padrinage.
Russia does not certainly want to guarantee to Iran a Shiite context going from Iraq to Syria, so as to arrive without interruption up to the Mediterranean coast.
Moreover Russia wants the strengthening and final success of the Astana talks – a decompression system of the Syrian conflict inevitably involving two other players besides Russia, namely Iran and Turkey.
Turkey against Iran, despite the recent good relations between the two countries sanctioned by the meeting held in early October 2017.
A visit which significantly took place while the Saudi leadership was paying an official visit to Russia.
Hence, from now on, the Russian Federation will play Turkey against Iran and vice versa, so as to avoid losing the role of main actor in Syria and, at least for the time being, in the rest of the Middle East.
Yet good relations between Russia and Israel are still needed.
Hence this is the reason why, on the one hand, Bashar al- Assad is ever less interested in supporting Iran’s post-war ambitions and he does not directly operate – at least for the time being – against the Turkish forces that entered Idlib.
This happens while Syria operates – now explicitly – in favour of the Kurds, traditionally fought by Turkey and currently de facto abandoned by the United States.
However, we have just been informed of a new agreement between the United States and the Kurdish leadership in Syria.
Besides Russia, Tukey and Syria have every interest in preventing the Kurds from changing the complex ethnic composition of the areas under their control – but here the only possible broker and mediator is the Russian Federation.
And this is also a primary Israeli strategic interest.
Moreover, all Syrian richest oil and water areas are now under the direct control of the Kurdish YPD, which will create further conditions for Russian mediation.
This happens while the United States is now ambiguously avoiding supporting the Kurds, whom it has armed and trained so far.
Moreover, currently the United States has problematic relations also with Turkey, which has never appreciated the US strategic double standard in Syria.
But today, after Putin’s phone call to Netanyahu on October 18, 2017 – designed to avoiding military climax in Syria and particularly to protecting his forces, distributed throughout the Iranian and Hezbollah networks – we need to look at some other variables of this complex equation.
Israel’s operations could also hit the Russian base of Tiyas, i.e. the T4 near Palmira, the base from which the Iranian drone – copied from an old US drone lost by the Americans many years ago – is supposed to have left.
The base currently hosts four air squadrons.
In other words, Russia’s message to Israel is simply the following: dear Israeli friends, accept the new Russian hegemony over Syria and the Middle East and nothing will happen to you – neither by Iran nor by others.
The Russian message, however, also entails as follows: Israel should stop putting the lives and operations of the Russian soldiers present in the region in severe danger.
It should also stop putting the Russian forces in difficulties in their relations with the Iranian and Syrian forces that could put Russia in trouble precisely because of its friendship with Israel.
Israel cannot do without the alliance with the Russian Federation, while Russia cannot forget the number and importance of the Russian Jews who emigrated to the Jewish State.
It cannot forget how close the Russian-Israeli cooperation is in the technological, military, intelligence and cultural sectors.
For Israel the Russian military presence in Syria represents two strategic variables: on the one hand, it avoids the clash in the Golan Heights – and also in Lebanon, considering the tested system of terrestrial passage into Syria between Iran and the Lebanon – being massively targeted to Israel, that is not at all a Russian enemy.
On the other hand, the Russian military presence in Syria prevents the Jewish State from striking – surgically or not – the Iranian and Hezbollah forces operating on the ground.
Furthermore, Russia knows all too well that – by reaction – the operations in Syria have created a strong Sunni alliance, signed early June last with the exclusion of Qatar.
Israel has now excellent, but confidential relations with the new Sunni political universe.
Finally Russia has no intention of breaking all ties with the world dominated by Saudi Arabia and by the other Gulf powers because of their alliance with Iran in Syria.
Too much business is already underway, but above all what is at stake is Russia’ strategic wisdom in proposing itself as a global broker and mediator for the Middle East region, without ever forgetting anyone.
Moreover, the Russian Federation is well aware that, without Hezbollah’s and Iran’ support, it could certainly not have afforded a solitary war against ISIS and its allies in Syria – terrorists and Caliphate’s jihadists also backed by many Western powers and their Middle East points of reference, as Putin correctly stated in October 2015.
Thanks to its new dominance in Syria, the Russian Federation also wants to achieve a project of strong relations with the United States, thus re-establishing a new “strategic parity” with it.
It is precisely through the war in Syria that Russia wants to get out of its old post-1989 role of “regional power” in order to be once again a global player.
But how can it reach this goal without Israel’s regional support?
It is worth recalling, however, that Iran is absolutely necessary for the Russian Federation both for the creation of the Eurasian bloc – the future central axis of Putin’s geopolitics – and also for the essential oil connection between Russia and Iran.
Last August there were also secret contacts between Israel, Russia and the United States in Amman.
Jordan and the Jewish State pointed out – especially to Russia – that the “de-escalation zones”, envisaged in the Astana agreements and later reaffirmed by the Geneva Peace Conference, had a positioning that would enable the Iranian and Hezbollah forces to attack the Israeli positions, and obviously the Jordanian ones, more easily.
It is worth recalling that the “de-escalation zones” in Syria are the following : 1) the Idlib province, as well as the Northeastern areas of Latakia province, Western areas of Aleppo and Northern areas of Hama; 2) the Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in Northern Homs province; 3) Eastern Ghouta in the Northern Damascus countryside; 4) the rebel-controlled South along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces.
Again in that secret meeting Jordan and Israeli added that it would be preferable for them to have Russia’s direct control over the border between Syria and Jordan.
Russia and the United States – this time united – only wanted to reach, as soon as possible, an agreement on the cease-fire in Southern Syria, unavoidable to successfully attack the areas still held by Daesh-Isis.
This was the strategic sense of the Amman meeting.
At that time Israel also asked – but only to the Russian Federation – to create an area of at least 20 kilometres away from the Israeli border with Syria completely devoid of Iranian or Hezbollah positions.
There was also the possibility that Israel would ask Russia and the United States to expel all Iran’s and its allies’ forces from Syria.
Obviously this is inconceivable. Neither of the two major global players, namely Russia and the United States, is interested in expelling Iran from Syria.
Russia cannot do without it, as we have already seen.
The United States, however, has no intention of being directly involved in the Syrian chaos, with many boots on the ground, since it rather prefers a military and geopolitical balance between its various client groups.
Furthermore, the visit paid by the Russian Defence Minister, Shoigu, to Israel in mid-October 2017 has not solved the primary issue, i.e. the excessive presence of Iranian weapons and soldiers – or connected to Iran – near the Golan Heights border.
In fact, Israel saw the emergence of ISIS in Syria as an excellent opportunity to overthrow Bashar al-Assad – an enemy if considered on his own and also Iran’s loyal supporter.
Netanyahu, however, reiterated to Minister Shoigu the concept we have already mentioned, i.e. that the de-escalation zones do not guarantee at all the absence of Shiite militias on the Syrian-Israeli border.
Probably they favour their transfer to the Golan Heights and to the Lebanon.
A possible solution is that, after destroying the last Isis-Daesh pockets of resistance, Russia is really ending its operations in Syria.
This will soon imply also the withdrawal of Iran and Hezbollah, as well as the other Shiite militias.
A return back home that, according to our sources, will be controlled by the Russian Federation and by other regional and global players – none of them particularly interested in favouring Iran.
Hence if Israel persuades the Russian Federation to carry out a parallel credible and geographically verifiable withdrawal from Syria – also of the Iranian and pro-Iranian forces – the tension on borders, but also the line of direct connection between Iran and the Lebanon could be interrupted or damaged.
But certainly the Jewish State cannot fail to keep on monitoring its borders carefully. It will check with other actions, but not necessarily with the air force, Russia’s willingness to defend Iranian positions to the bitter end.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France