Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Putin Warned Netanyahu About Syria


In the aftermath of the shooting down by Syria of an Israeli F-16, President Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had a telephone conversation. Even by its standards, the Kremlin’s summary of the conversation is extremely short:

The discussion focused on the actions of the Israeli Air Force, which carried out missile strikes in Syria. The President of Russia spoke out in favour of avoiding any steps that could lead to a new round of confrontation, which would be dangerous for everyone in the region.

This pithy report of the conversation between the Russian and Israeli leaders matches the scant information the Russians provided of the talks between Putin and Netanyahu in January. However, it isn’t difficult to understand current Russian policy with respect to the conflict between Syria and Israel, and it puzzles me that there’s so much confusion about it. The first point is that Russia is now the guarantor of the survival of President Assad and of his government. Constant speculation that the Russians might abandon President Assad in order to achieve peace in Syria, or might force a loose decentralised structure upon Syria, which the Syrian government doesn’t want, is misplaced. Prior to Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015, Russia consistently resisted pressure from the USA and its allies to agree to the ousting of President Assad. Russia repeatedly vetoed Resolutions presented to the UN Security Council by the Western Powers intended to achieve the ousting President Assad. After Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015, Russia resisted further pressure from the USA to agree to President Assad’s ouster, whether in return for a junior place in the USA’s anti-ISIS coalition or in return for the promise of joint military operations between Russia and the USA against al-Qaeda. I discussed the failure of former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt in Moscow in July 2016 to get the Russians to agree to the ouster of President Assad here.  In a follow-up article I said this:

The story of the diplomacy of the Syrian conflict is a continuous repetition of the same mantra… the USA pushes Russia to agree to have President Assad removed. The USA makes various offers or threats to Russia to cajole or force their agreement. Russia responds that President Assad’s future is a strictly Syrian internal matter, which they won’t involve themselves in. The USA walks away, baffled and angry. In truth, the inability of the US and its Western and Arab allies to accept that Russian opposition to their policy in Syria and elsewhere is for real and that they can’t bully or bribe Russia to change it is one of the oddest things about the whole Syrian conflict. Despite the fact that Russia has gone repeatedly out of its way to explain their policy, the USA and its allies seem incapable of believing that Russia is serious about it. They always seem to think that Russia is just playing some cynical game and that if they make the right sort of offer, or put under it the right sort of pressure, it can bring Russia around and make it agree to let Assad go.

If Russia wasn’t prepared to agree to force President Assad’s ouster when his government controlled only a small strip of territory along Syria’s coast and when Aleppo… Syria’s biggest city… seemed to be about to slip out of President Assad’s control, then, they aren’t going to agree to force President Assad’s ouster now, when they helped him secure control of all of Syria’s main cities… including Damascus and Aleppo… and when his army has reached the Iraqi border in Syria’s farthest east. After investing so much in President Assad’s survival and in the survival of his government, it’s inconceivable that Russia would abandon him now, and I’m sure that no one in any position of authority in Moscow is considering it. At the same time, no one in Moscow wants to see Russia embroiled in the Syrian-Israeli conflict, which far predates Russia’s intervention in Syria, and which goes back all the way to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Following the 1967 Six Day War, the Russians did commit themselves wholeheartedly to one side in the Arab-Israeli conflict… backing the Arabs diplomatically, arming the Arabs intensively, sending a strong military force to defend Egypt in 1970 from Israeli air attack, and breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel. The result for Moscow was a catastrophe. It alienated the USSR’s large Jewish community and it found that by making an enemy of Israel it further poisoned its relations with the Western powers at precisely a time when it was seeking détente with them. The USSR quickly discovered that its Arab “allies”, in whom it had invested so much, were both ungrateful and treacherous so that by 1980 the USSR’s entire position in the Middle East completely collapsed. The final straw came after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, when volunteers from across the Arab world rushed to fight in Afghanistan, in a way that they’d never shown the slightest indication of wanting to do against Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. Not surprisingly, since the mid-1980s, therefore, Russia determined never to become directly involved in any part of the Arab-Israel conflict again. Thus, whilst Russia maintains good relations with Arab states, and whilst Russia continues to voice support for the Palestinians, Russia always strove to maintain good relations with Israel as well, forging significant economic links with Israel.

Beyond this, given that Russia already has its hands full in Syria, fighting all sorts of Jihadist and proxy forces there on behalf of President Assad and his government, it has no wish or need to complicate this already complicated task further by taking on Israel… the Middle East’s military giant, with nuclear weapons and the Middle East’s strongest air force… on behalf of Syria as well. Therefore, provided Israeli attacks on Syria don’t go beyond the routine attacks which Israel has launched against Syria for decades, which long predate Russia’s intervention in Syria, and provided the Israelis take no step to threaten the existence of the Syrian government or interferes in Syrian military operations against the Jihadist groups Russia is fighting, Russia will do nothing about them. However, conversely, if Israeli attacks on Syria threaten either the Syrian government or interfere in Syrian military operations against the Jihadist groups Russia is fighting, then, Russia will respond sharply, as they did in March last year when they summoned the Israeli ambassador for a dressing down at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after an Israeli airstrike against the Tiyas airbase, which appeared to have the intent of interfering with the Syrian offensive against ISIS.

Right at the start of the Russian intervention in Syria, on 21 September 2015, President Putin had a series of meetings and conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over the course of which he would’ve carefully explained Russian policy to the Israeli leader, setting out the ground rules. The Russian and Israeli leaders agreed during that summit to a “deconfliction” mechanism; which confirmed that Russia made it clear over the course of that meeting that they weren’t interested in and wouldn’t interfere in “routine” Israeli air strikes against Syria. Here’s how Reuters reported it:

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Moscow that Israel and Russia agreed to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire. Recent Russian reinforcements for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which regional sources say include warplanes and anti-aircraft systems, worry Israel, whose jets have on occasion bombed the neighbouring Arab country to foil suspected handovers of advanced arms to Assad’s Lebanese guerrilla ally Hizbullah. Briefing Israeli reporters after he met President Putin, Netanyahu said he’d come with the goal of “prevent(ing) misunderstandings between IDF units and Russian forces” in Syria, where Assad is fighting Islamist-dominated insurgents in a civil war. Netanyahu added that he and Putin “agreed on a mechanism to prevent such misunderstandings”. He didn’t elaborate. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin. In earlier remarks, as he welcomed Netanyahu to the presidential residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, Putin said Russian actions in the Middle East would always be “responsible”. Underlining the importance of Netanyahu’s one-day visit to Moscow, Israel’s premier took along its armed forces chief of and the general in charge of Israeli military intelligence. Putin, who shares the Western concern about the spread of Islamic State influence, pledged to continue military support for Assad, assistance that Russia says is in line with international law. Russia focused its forces on Syria’s coast, where Moscow keeps a Mediterranean naval base. The USA, which along with its allies has been flying missions against Islamic State insurgents in Syria, also held so-called “deconfliction” talks with Russia.

This report of the agreement Putin and Netanyahu reached on 21 September 2015 confirms that Russia made clear to Israel that they had no interest in preventing “routine” Israeli strikes against Syria, and that their intervention in Syria didn’t intend to prevent such strikes. At the time, Russia would also have said the same thing to President Assad and to the Iranian government: Russia intervened in Syria to save a Syrian government under attack by Jihadist terrorists and threatened with régime change by the USA, not to help Syria prosecute its longstanding conflict with Israel. However, the other side of the coin is that just as the Russians won’t act to stop “routine” Israeli airstrikes against Syria, so they won’t act to stop whatever actions Syria takes to defend itself from such strikes. Both “routine” Israeli actions and Syrian counter-actions are part of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israel-Syria conflict, which doesn’t involve Russia.

Certainly, Russia wasn’t involved in the recent Syrian shooting down of the Israeli F-16 and no one concerned… not the Syrians nor the Israelis… is saying that they were. At the same time, and consistent with its policy, whilst Russia won’t act to stop the Israelis carrying out “routine” airstrikes against Syria or the Syrians shooting down Israeli aircraft which engage in such strikes, Russia will react sharply to any Israeli action that threatens the existence of the Syrian government or which interferes in Syrian military operations against the Jihadists Russia is fighting, just as they did last March. The following words in the Kremlin summary confirm that Putin reminded Netanyahu of this over the course of their recent call:

The President of Russia spoke out in favour of avoiding any steps that could lead to a new round of confrontation, which would be dangerous for everyone in the region.

In other words, Putin told Netanyahu to moderate his reaction to the shooting down of the F-16, and Israel’s relatively mild reaction to the shooting down of the F-16… the retaliatory airstrikes Israel launched after the shoot-down didn’t go beyond the level of “routine” strikes, and didn’t threaten Syrian military operations against the Jihadists (which continue unabated) or the existence of the Syrian government… shows that despite his public bluster, Netanyahu heeded Putin’s call. Almost certainly, Russia balanced this warning to Netanyahu with equivalent warnings to Damascus and Tehran, warning them that they should avoid further escalation. Since it isn’t in Syria’s or Iran’s interests that Syria, which is still in a state of civil war, with large areas under control of the Kurds and the Syrian government’s Jihadist enemies, and with US and Turkish troops on its territory a current threat, should find itself in an all-out conflict with Israel, it’s a certainty that all concerned are heeding these Russian warnings.

If Russia is loathe to take sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict or in the conflict between Israel and Syria, the events of the last few days show how the mere fact of its presence in Syria is nonetheless changing the dynamics of the conflict. As I recently wrote, Syria’s success in shooting down an Israeli F-16 provides confirmation that the military balance in the Middle East is shifting. Something that was beyond Syria’s capabilities until very recently… the shooting down of an Israeli fighter in Israeli-controlled airspace… has now happened. Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict brought this about. Without Russia’s intervention, there’d be no Syrian military to shoot down Israeli aircraft, and Russian training, advice, and technical support gave the Syrian military the ability to shoot down Israeli aircraft. Shifting the balance of military power in the Middle East wasn’t the intention behind Russia’s intervention in Syria; however, it’s the product of it. Similarly, Russia warning Israel against taking action in response to the shooting down of the F-16 which might escalate the situation isn’t a case of Russia taking sides in the longstanding conflict between Israel and Syria; however, its effect is to protect Syria from Israeli actions which might’ve happened in response to the shooting down of the F-16 as part of that conflict, if Russia hadn’t been present in Syria and hadn’t given Israel a warning. The result is that Syria successfully shot down an Israeli F-16 and suffered no significant consequences from it. Although the Arab-Israeli conflict continues, and although Israel and Syria will continue to take actions against each other, the dynamic of the conflict has changed.

12 February 2018

Alexander Mercouris

The Duran


Monday, 12 February 2018

Military Balance Shifts: Syria Shoots Down Israeli F-16


The shooting down by Syria of an Israeli F-16 shortly after Israel carried out an airstrike on Syria provoked world headlines, as well as a mixture of consternation and threats from Israel. Much about this incident is unclear, but the central fact is that Syria shot down an Israeli F-16 and that its wreckage fell in Israel. The Israeli claim is that this happened after an Israeli air strike on an Iranian drone trailer near Palmyra, which the Israelis say they carried out in response to an intrusion of an Iranian drone from Syria into their airspace. The Israelis claim they brought down this drone and offer to display it. Supposedly, Syrian air defence responded to this Israeli airstrike by shooting down the Israeli F-16 with SAMs. Israel claimed that in retaliation it then carried out a further airstrike on Syria.  Reports suggest that this was against Syrian military facilities near Damascus. Here is a report from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

[Syrian] Opposition sources in Damascus said that an Israeli strike targeted a control tower of a Syrian military airfield near Damascus and a weapons depot near the Syrian capital.

The Israeli account of the incident is in Haaretz. For their part, the Syrians said that they shot down two Israeli aircraft, not just one. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be engaging in “urgent consultations” with senior Israeli officials, and the Israelis published threats warning, “Iran and Syria are playing with fire”. In reality, however, despite these characteristically blood-curdling threats, Israel gave a muted response, with Israel now saying that it doesn’t wish to “escalate” the situation. The IDF insisted:

Israel doesn’t seek escalation with these two states [Iran and Syria]. We’re willing, prepared, and capable to exact a heavy price from anyone that attacks us. However, we aren’t looking to escalate the situation. What we did was merely a defensive effort triggered by an Iranian act of aggression and we defended our airspace, our sovereignty, and civilians.

What’s going on? Firstly, Israeli airstrikes on targets located within Syria and Lebanon are nothing new. They’ve occurred regularly ever since the Six Day War of 1967. Secondly, although the Israelis identified the Iranians as somehow responsible for the original drone incident, there’s no independent corroboration of this, and on the face of it, it seems unlikely. It isn’t obvious why Iran would want to send a drone over Israel. By contrast, it’s entirely obvious why Syria might want to do so. Israeli air raids on Syria and Israeli air support for Jihadi groups fighting the Syrian army in Syria (especially in the Golan Heights) give the Syrian military an obvious motive for flying surveillance drones over Israel in order to find out what the Israelis are doing there. Syria imports weapons from Iran, and surveillance drones… whose technology Iran is known to have perfected, and which Iran operates in some numbers… are an obvious import. Therefore, it’s possible and actually likely, that the drone the Israelis brought down… of course, assuming that it existed, something of which unfortunately one can’t be sure (you should never assume that anyone in the Middle East is telling the truth)… was a Syrian drone. Almost certainly, it was of Iranian manufacture, and possibly Iranians seconded by the Iranian military to the Syrian military operated it, but almost certainly it carried out surveillance on behalf of Syria, not Iran.

Nevertheless, the key point is that following this alleged incident with the drone the Syrian military successfully shot down an Israeli fighter, doing so for the first time since the 1980s, and doing so moreover over Israel, something which I believe hasn’t happened since the 1973 war. That indicates a radical shift in the military balance of power between Israel and Syria. Israel enjoyed unchallenged control of Middle East airspace ever since the 1967 war save for two brief periods… the so-called War of Attrition of 1970… when its adversary was the Soviet air defence forces, not the air forces of any of the Arab states… and during the opening days of the 1973 war. Russian accounts of the air combat between the Israeli and Syrian forces during the 1982 Lebanon war suggest that it may have been more even than Israel claimed and the Western media reported at the time. However, there’s no doubt that in the end the Israelis successfully asserted their air supremacy over the Syrians in that combat.

Since the arrival of the Russians in Syria in September 2015, that situation changed. The Russian Aerospace Forces based at Khmeimim air base are technologically and in training at least the equals of the Israeli Air Force, even if the Israelis heavily outnumber them. The radars and air defence missile systems Russia deployed to Syria… recently reinforced by the despatch of still more S-400 SAMs there… pose an even bigger potential challenge to Israel’s superiority in Middle East airspace over the long term. Yet, the Russians aren’t currently Israel’s enemy… Israel and Russia have cordial relations at present… although this is a worrying development for Israel, especially that Russia decided to establish permanent bases in Syria, it isn’t a reason for immediate concern.

By contrast, the Israelis do perceive Syria as an enemy. In fact, Syria and Israel have been in a formal state of war ever since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. Therefore, the fact that Syria demonstrated an ability to shoot down Israeli fighters will alarm the Israelis considerably. Moreover, there are aspects of this particular incident that alarm the Israelis even more. The fact that the Syrians shot down the F-16 over Israel suggests either that the original Israeli airstrike was carried out from Israel… with the Israelis launching long-range stand-off missiles against the alleged drone facility from their own airspace… or that the Syrians waited for the Israeli aircraft to return to their bases after the airstrike before attacking them. In either case, the Syrians showed they’re able to track and target Israeli aircraft flying in Israeli airspace. If the Syrians shot down the F-16 in an ambush when it was returning to its base, then, they also demonstrated a previously-unknown level of tactical skill. Moreover, this development didn’t come from nowhere. I wrote on 20 March 2017 following an uncannily similar incident when Syria also tried to shoot down Israeli aircraft over Israel following an Israeli air strike on a military facility near Palmyra:

It appears that the Israeli aircraft didn’t penetrate deep into Syrian territory. Rather, it seems that the Israeli aircraft slipped across the border, almost immediately launched their missiles against their target, and then turned back home. The Israelis would’ve used standoff missiles, either Popeye missiles or, more probably, longer-range Delilah cruise-missiles, which undoubtedly do have the range to reach targets near Palmyra from the al-Bureij area. The Syrians appear to have retaliated by launching S-200 SAMs at Israeli aircraft after the raid as the aircraft were returning home to their bases. The Syrians seem to have waited until the Israeli aircraft crossed the Lebanese border back into Israel before launching their missiles. The SANA report clearly said that the Syrians launched SAMs at the Israeli aircraft whilst they were over “occupied territory”, which might mean the West Bank or the Golan Heights, but more likely means Israel itself (Syria still doesn’t recognise Israel and officially considers the whole of Israel to be occupied Palestinian territory). The Syrian military is becoming significantly stronger, with the incident of the raid showing that technical help from Russia has made it possible for the Syrians to track and intercept Israeli aircraft over Israel.

It looks as if the pattern of events today is very similar. The original Israel attack on this occasion, like the one in March 2017, was probably against Syria’s Tiyas air base, which is the main Syrian military facility near Palmyra. Possibly, it was against a drone control and launch facility operating from there if the story of the drone is true. Most probably, just as was the case in March 2017, they carried it out at long-range with Popeye or Delilah standoff missiles. Subsequently, just as happened in March 2017, the Syrians tracked the Israeli aircraft as they were returning to their bases, and then ambushed them by launching long-range S-200 SAMs against them as they were approaching their bases. The difference is that whereas in March 2017 the ambush failed, on this occasion it succeeded. In other words, the Syrians didn’t only demonstrate the technical capability to track and shoot down Israeli aircraft over Israel, which they’d already previously demonstrated last March. They also demonstrated the ability to use this capability successfully as well. That suggests a further improvement in Syrian skill and ability since last March.

At this point, it’s worth adding that this radical improvement in Syrian air defence capabilities is matched by equally radical improvements in the performance of Syrian ground forces, as they benefit increasingly from Iranian and Russian advice, training, and technical support. Whereas in early 2016, immediately following the start of the Russian intervention in September 2015, Syrian military advances against al-Qaeda in western Syria were slow and incremental, being measured in one or two kilometres a day, today, as the recently completed Idlib offensive shows, the Syrian army is capable of advances of hundreds of kilometres over the course of just a few weeks or even days. This radical improvement in Syrian military capabilities almost certainly explains the muted Israeli response to the shooting down of their F-16. The Israelis didn’t launch the sort of all-out attack on Syrian bases that their previous history suggests we might expect from them because they fear they’d suffer further casualties if they did so. In other words, for the first time in decades, an Arab state demonstrated its ability to defend itself and forced Israel to draw back. That demonstrates a radical shift in the balance of military power in the Middle East; it’ll cause Israel extreme concern.

10 February 2018

Alexander Mercouris

The Duran


Thursday, 27 September 2012

27 September 2012. This is Why the Draft Exemption for Haredi in Israel Stinks… and Why Bibi’s a Bozo for Supporting It

Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of Netanel Yahalomi during his funeral 


Slain IDF Soldier Known as “Halachic Man”

On Sunday, 23 September, hundreds of mourners gathered at a synagogue in the small Orthodox community of Nof Ayalon in central Israel for the funeral of IDF soldier Netanel Yahalomi. Terrorists killed Yahalomi, 20, in the Sinai Peninsula near the Israel-Egypt border on Friday afternoon. He was laid to rest in the military cemetery in Modiin.

The three terrorists were on the border between Egypt and Israel south of Mt Sagi, an area in which the defensive fence being built by Israel isn’t yet complete. An IDF spokesman told Yedioth Ahronoth that the IDF returned fire, killing all three heavily-armed terrorists, thus, thwarting “a major terror attack that was supposed to take place in Israeli territory. The terrorists were carrying a powerful explosive device”. Reportedly, Yahalomi killed a terrorist before he himself was fatally shot. It isn’t clear if the terrorists were from Gaza or from the Sinai Global Jihad Organisation. Another IDF soldier was injured in the attack.

Yahalomi, the third of six children born to Shmuel and Tova Yahalomi, was in the hesder programme, which combines army service with yeshiva study. He was nicknamed by his army buddies as “Halachic Man”, the title of a well-known book by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik that describes Soloveitchik’s view of how the ideal religious Jew thinks and acts. His sister Avital said, “It was very important to him to integrate Torah study into everything he did. Even when he came home, it was important to him to learn Torah. He was a man of truth”.

His mother, Tova, said she had spoken to him just the day before he died. His sister Avital said, “He was home two weeks ago, and was supposed to come again only on Sukkot. He was supposed to be in the army for Yom Kippur. We sent him a package because we wanted him to have a good holiday. He was very sorry he wouldn’t be able to pray with a minyan on Rosh Hashanah, but told us he was excited because they managed to blow the shofar”. Avital said he rarely spoke to his family of the dangers of serving on the Egyptian border, saying, “He never told us exactly what he did in the army. He said he was forbidden to tell us anything”.

25 September 2012

Jewish Ledger: Connecticut Edition


Editor’s Note:

Bibi the Bobo is making huge noises over Iran. Trust me, his coalition’s in the deep doo-doo over Haredi draft exemptions. He can’t attack a doghouse, let alone Iran (a former Mossad chief slammed the very idea of it). Kadima left his coalition, and he’s going to have to call elections soon. Well, Willy and Bibi had their picture taken together recently… Tweedeedum and Tweedledummer… two has-beens on the way to defeat.

The above article shows that religious Jews do serve in the IDF and serve honourably. The Haredi who hide under exemptions are cowards and poltroons… they aren’t fit or decent company for anyone or anything (a mangy mutt would turn up his nose at such and lift his leg at them).


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