Putin, Syria and a warm-water port

At the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, President Obama said that any resolution in Syria must include the removal of Bashar Al-Assad as president. President Putin, in his speech, insisted that Assad was not the problem and that his exit would enable the Sunni Jihadists, mainly ISIS and al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra, to take over the country.
Putin’s argument has merit. Obama’s incessant call for the removal of Assad is a continuation of the well-intended but totally naïve, misguided and eventually disastrous US policy during the so-called “Arab Spring” of assisting with the overthrow of secular, stabilizing, pro-Western dictators in favor of “democratic elections.”
And we all know how that turned out.
These US driven elections brought to power extreme anti-American Muslim forces like the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc., and Shiite Iran in Iraq, Yemen, etc.
Putin gets it. He knows that Assad is a cruel dictator, but he also knows that ISIS and Al-Nusra are far worse. He knows that Syria, as a sovereign state, no longer exists. It is already permanently divided back into four distinct areas of sectarian control: about 70 percent of the country is controlled by Sunni ISIS or A-Nusra, with the Kurds and Yazidis self-governing their historical homelands in the North (helped by Iraqi and Iranian Kurds), the Druze in their homeland in the Southwest (unofficially helped by Israel) and the Alawites (Assad’s sect) holding on to the narrow coastal area, their historical homeland, and for the moment Damascus, thanks to what’s left of the Syrian military, dwindling Hezbollah forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Al-Quds Brigade fighters.
Putin understands that the idea of bringing everyone together in a kumbaya session to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again is ridiculous. But is preserving the Alawite dictatorship, with or without Assad, in Syria his real goal? In “Syria” — No. In the Alawite homeland? Yes!
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Putin realized that Russia needed a warm water port and Middle East air base to continue to be able to project force, influence policy and protect Russian economic and diplomatic interests in the region.
Working closely with, and supporting both Hafez Al-Assad, and his son Bashar. Russia supplied the minority Alawite regime with weapons, air power training, advisors and lots of money and diplomatic support, in exchange for the construction of a modern, deep water naval base at Tartus, and free use of the Basel-Al Bashar civilian and military airport at Latakia — both locations within the traditional Alawite homeland on the warm Mediterranean coast.
If the Alawite homeland fell to the Sunni Jihadists, and right now they are very close, Russia would lose both.
Barbara Opall, writing Tuesday in defencenews.com, quotes Dima Adamsky, associate professor at Herzliya  Inter-Disciplinary Center’s Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, who said Putin seeks to play a constructive role in the chaos that is Syria and the region beyond. In an article in Foreign Affairs and a subsequent interview last week, Adamsky said he expected Putin to push for a U.N. mandate to forge and help secure a diplomatic solution for Syria which, despite U.S. objections, will include Assad and Iran.
Beyond Putin’s desire to regain a foothold in the region and fortify Assad, a strategic ally, Opall writes that Adamsky cited Russia’s “very real strategic concern” in stemming the spread of Islamic jihadists who may return to wage insurgencies in Russia and its interests in Central Asia and the North Caucasus.
Moreover, Moscow’s buildup in Syria allows it to cultivate new alliances and arms markets in the region while rehabilitating its pariah status in the West due to land grabs in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Adamsky also cited Russia’s new naval doctrine, published earlier this year, which prescribes a permanent presence in the Mediterranean, with the naval facility at Syria’s port town of Tartus playing a critical role.
“Syria used to be the Soviet naval center of gravity during the late Cold War, from which it launched actions vis-à-vis the U.S. Sixth Fleet. It’s now the only overseas base of the Russian Navy outside of the Russian Federation, and a resurgent presence there is definitely part of their plan,” he said.
As Imra.org reported Tuesday from Israel:
“American failure to militate against a Syrian regime deploying chemical weapons, barrel bombs and creating a deluge of refugees has all but paved the way for Moscow to reassert a Soviet-like presence in the war-wracked country and the warm Mediterranean waters beyond.”
“That, in a nutshell, is the widely held assessment of Israeli policymakers and experts, who blame Washington for creating yet another layer of complexity in Israel’s operations against Hezbollah, the Tehran-sponsored Lebanese Shiite organization battling on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime.”
“According to the Russian expert who routinely plays the role of Putin in war-game exercises in Israel, Russia’s return to the region is unstoppable, and it is up to Washington, NATO, Israel and others in the region to adapt their policies accordingly “Putin is here to stay … Russia’s doctrine prescribes a penetration into warm Mediterranean waters, a foothold in the Middle East and this will force Israel, the U.S., Turkey and other actors to rearrange and rethink how they’ve been engaging Syria since the end of the Cold War,” he said.
Also quoting Adamsky, Imra agreed that Putin’s move is “a seemingly very elegant move. It enables him to address several issues across different domains: He fortifies Assad, battles the Islamic States, sustains arms and energy markets, and is in a position to open new relationships and alliances in the region. And through the Russian Orthodox Church, he can portray himself as the savior of the persecuted Christian minority in the region.”
But Israel is still very concerned. Bibi Netanyahu flew to Moscow last week with top IDF commanders and Intelligence officers. They met with Putin and his top generals and agreed on a mechanism for deconfliction to avoid mishaps.
Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli major general and former national security adviser to Netanyahu, insisted that planned deconfliction mechanisms are tactical and do not imply any agreement on Israel’s part for strategic coordination with Russia. “In areas where more than one state is operating in the same theater, you need deconfliction,” he said.
I personally agree with Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry’s longtime director of policy and political military affairs, who estimates that Assad controls barely 25 percent of Syria’s once sovereign territory, with the Islamic State battling the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front for control of the Golan. “To our north, there is a country that was once called Syria. But Syria has disappeared. There is no Syria, and I don’t think it ever will return.”
Which is why I cautiously welcome, for the time being, a strong Russian presence, as the lesser of evils.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is President and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress,
and a Middle East analyst. Email: gil@swjc.org
Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at: www.swjc.org
DISCLAIMER: Opinions are the writer’s, and do not represent SWJC directors, officers or members.

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