How Russia is losing Syria?

                      As the year of 2021 was coming to the end in the early hours of 28 December the Syria port of Latakia faced yet another brutal Israeli aggression. This was the second attack against the same port just in December, and yet another incident in the long series of Israeli aggressions against Syria.

            Though Tel Aviv once again chose not to comment the incident, its media figures went far to explain the attack as steps to prevent Iran sending weapons via Syria to Lebanon. And like so many cases before, the evidence prove quite the opposite, as the four targeted containers held no arms.

            The matter of continued and seemingly pointless aggressions by Tel Aviv against the civilian infrastructure in Syria, like in Eastern Syria, against the capital Damascus, or on the Damascus airport itself is an important question. It suggests that the Israeli leadership still zealously searching for some shipments, which it fails to find after all attempts. No doubt, the reasons go far beyond the direct military considerations, even if one accepts the scenario of maneuvers blocking arms shipments by Iran. It is much more connected to the Israeli inner political struggles and the ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations, or the escalating threats between Tel Aviv and Tehran about a possible upcoming war. So in one way or another the Israeli leadership could provoke an unwise reaction by Tehran and derail the talks in Vienna.

            But the matter this time goes even much farther. Fury starts to erupt in the Syrian public against Russia permitting, or at least not blocking these ongoing barbaric attacks. No doubt Moscow is not in an easy position when it comes to Syria, as it has to keep a careful balance in its interest towards Israel, Turkey, Iran and Syria as well, while there is a growing pressure on it by Washington. But this incident lit a fire harder to extinguish than the fires in Latakia port by the Israeli missiles.


The attack on Latakia port

            The attack against Latakia came on the early hours of 28 December by Israeli jets from above the Mediterranean Sea. The attack caused massive damage, and the reason for that is that both the Russian and the Syrian air defense systems were deactivated. Even the Russian side admitted that the reason for that was that the attack coincided with the landing of a Russian army jet at the nearby Ḥamīmīm airport operated by the Russian forces. So the Russians put the blame mostly on the Israelis hiding behind a Russian jet’s landing, and on the Syrians for not being more cautious. And that reason is one of the major reason for the Syrian uproar behind this attack.

            It should be mentioned that this Russian reasoning is not entirely unfounded, as in September 2018 a Russian plane with 15 Russian soldiers on board was downed by the Syrian air defense following a similar Israeli attack. Also a similar incident happened in February 2020, when a passenger flight had to reroute in the last second following an Israeli attack against Damascus airport, which almost caused tragedy. So there is precedence for Israeli planes hiding behind commercial or Russian military planes to evade the Syrian air defense, and it would sound somewhat logical to deactivate Syrian and Russian air defenses at a time of heavy or sensitive air traffic around the main Russian military airport.

            Where this reasoning falls short, however, is that most developed air defenses have sophisticated friend-foe identification systems capable of differentiation between friendly planes and enemy jets or missiles. Even more problematic why the Russian air reconnaissance did not give a warning about Israeli movement in the area, and why it neglected the threat. How come that a time or Israeli jet cruising in the area the Russian air reconnaissance did not show more caution, or thwart the threat in some way? Considering the growing influence of Russia all over Syria, and especially at the coastal area Syrians are not interested in excuses. The least they expect is effective coverage in exchange of this influence.

            The attack caused massive material damage and confusion, though it was very far from what was alleged that military equipment, or missiles caused the erupted fires. The evidence shown by Syria proves sufficiently that targeted containers held only food and civilian goods.

            Though once again the Israeli state chose not to comment on the attack Israeli commentators, however, clearly acknowledged that Israel hit the port, reasoning it for stopping blocking Iranian military shipments to paramilitary groups in Syria and Lebanon. Whatever is the truth behind this attempt, it is clear that this time no military shipment was hit. This either indicate that the Israeli intelligence failed to identify a shipment, or that the real reasons mostly lay somewhere else.


What is Tel Aviv hunting for?

            The recently escalating Israeli attacks against the Syrian civilian infrastructure have two primary objectives. Continue putting pressure on Syria and show force by the new Israeli government that it can exercise full power in neighboring countries. So it is just as much in charge of the situation, as the previous one. The second is a political agenda. To irritate Iran and its allies enough for a rushed response, which can be used as an excuse to stop the nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna.

            The mysterious hunt for alleged Iranian shipments for paramilitary groups in the region has been going on for more than a year now. After Syrian stabilized is southern flank by reasserting control over Darā‘ and with successful agreements with Jordan this bombardment campaign took a sudden turn. On 14 October 2021 Israel carried out a massive attack against Syrian military positions in the Syrian desert from above the American base at at-Tanaf within Syria, clearly using the cover of the American base. This was an unprecedented breach of the unwritten rules of engagement between Russian and the U.S. not interfering with each other’s areal moves, but also somewhat dividing the Syrian airspace between themselves. However, such unofficial agreement did not permit the use of their influence for any third party to use that as cover. Exactly the way the Israelis did.

            The response came swiftly, as on 20 October 2021 unidentified groups fired barrages against the American base at at-Tanaf, causing massive, but only material damage. Considering the sensitive nature of the base, it is clear that such attack could not have happened without the consent of Damascus and Moscow. More likely it was a message by them that using the base for such attacks is not tolerated. And it worked in some level, as so far no similar Israeli attacks happened from above at-Tanaf. The aggressions by Tel Aviv, however, intensified against multiple targets and on multiple occasions since then. This is clearly linked to the previous attempts to unnerve Iran and undermine the Iranian-Syrian activities in the region. We also have supposed before that Tel Aviv is looking for some specific shipments when it conducts its massive attacks in Syria, a delivery so far failed to pinpoint.


The war for ports. The war for the future?

            Beyond the direct military considerations, however, there is yet another, more important war Tel Aviv is waging. This is not about the present, but for the future. Along strategic plans, which are at least seventy old, but in the last two decades reached a stage, where their realization is very possible and highly plausible.

            It is a known fact that once the Chinese Road and Belt initiative will reach its designed goals, it will connect the Far Eastern and the European markets and production centers. Upon its realization all the states, which are part of this partnership will massively benefit from the transit of goods and energy, but also by the infrastructural and investment boom this partnership will provide. However, it is a less debated matter that there is no “one” route, but in fact many projects, and a number of them are not finalized. So there is a huge struggle for more then a decade within the region, which states, which cities will be the key juncture points of this new Silk Road.

            Here this initiative meets another age old dream, which is also very close to finalization. To connect the energy supply sources of the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf and Egypt with the European markets. Which would be immensely beneficial for both end points, but also for all the transit states, as it would secure reliable and growing markets, investments and revenues in the form of energy sales and transit tariffs. The expanded infrastructure, on the other hand could be used for other trade partnerships as well, expanding the horizons of the participating states.

            The two themes meet now in one network of projects. If the Road and Belt initiatives, even just by one route, goes through the Persian Gulf – which is undoubtedly coming -, then the energy sales can materialize towards the also reliable Chinese and Far Eastern markets as well. Also, the massive volumes of Chinese goods will need several juncture points in the region, where regional trade will also meet flow of the Silk Road. Consequently, these juncture points will become immensely rich, and given their importance the hosting states will obtain a huge leverage, a sense being untouchable. Like for decades the security of the Gulf’s Arab states was a priority not only for the U.S., but for the whole global economy. The same thing will be true, only this time under Chinese influence. And of course, there is a restless struggle to gain to role of the two key juncture points.

            By now the Chinese projects practically reached the Indian Ocean in Pakistan and Iran, the final steps are under development and will soon be finished. On the other end the European oil and gas pipelines reached Cyprus and go beyond, soon reaching the shore of the Levant. It is also somewhat clear that the two have to meet at one point. But where? There has to be one trade hub in the Gulf. From here goods and energy resources has to arrive to the other hub, or transit point to take the final step to Europe.

            One solution could be the Suez Canal. That is why Egypt rushed to greatly expand this route, to build a second path. This, however, while still being a vital route, did not solve all the energy linkage matters and in some relations less advantageous.

            That struggle is one of the key reasons for the struggle between the Emirates and Qatar, as their two key trade and economic hubs, Dubai and Doha compete for the Chinese partnership.

            The most desired route would be to connect the Gulf with the Levantine shores with pipelines and which fast trains, to end in a largely expanded port towards Europe. Into this route all the secondary channels of the Gulf, the goods and markets of Iran and Iraq could be linked. And while the match for which city to be the key trade hub in the Gulf is still afoot, there is another match for the Levantine hub.

            There are three possible ports for that. These are Haifa, Beirut and Latakia. Haifa is by far the most developed. There is an existing pipeline between Haifa and Eilat, Israel’s exit to the Red Sea, and between the two the distance is minimal. And it was revealed lately that one key aspects of the Emirati normalization with Israel was to arrange this route. Consequently, this would offer a promising and established route for the Chinese initiatives. That is probably why the Emirate green lighted the construction of a – secret – Chinese military base in Dubai. So far this route is put to hold, as the construction of the military base was blocked by the Americans, while the transit route to the European markets via Haifa was halted – officially – by the Israelis. Though this might be due to Emirati reconsideration, as Abū Zabī is currently restructuring its relations with both Iran and Turkey. Whatever is the reason for that, the so far most promising transit route seems to be in question and is in desperate need to turn the equation around.

            The other, second most logical port would be Beirut, which already has a well functioning infrastructure. At least it had, until a August 2020, when a devastating explosion made it inoperable. And given the local political setup, not only it is still unclear what really happened and how Beirut was paralyzed in such level, but the very same setup ensures that reconstruction will last long. Even if huge sums are poured into it – which China could provide -, the Lebanese economic crisis is so deep – also met with a political deadlock and rampart corruption – that these sums would simply vanish without any tangible payoff. And this is only deepened by a notoriously unstable political climate in Lebanon, which has the potential to blow up any second.

            The third option would be the Syrian port of Latakia. With all its problems Syria politically is still a way more stabile and predictable state. Its excellent relations with Iran and – by now – Iraq make a trade route very promising, especially that the pipeline between the Iraq and Syria, but also between Syria and Jordan exist, and with good infrastructure along the Syrian coast. It is true that this is the least developed, but given the circumstances it is an ideal ground for investments. Which is already present in the rivalry between Iran and Russia here. And given Latakia is very close to Cyprus, the link here to the European markets would be easy. Via Syria two massive lines, the one from the Gulf via Jordan, and the second from Iran via Iraq could meet in one stream.

            It is true that the conditions now seem way unpromising to suggest that any time soon Syria could transport into this trade hub. Three years ago that would have been unimaginable. But the circumstances have changed drastically. Syria regained most of its territories and recently rebuilt its relations with Jordan, while the Gulf states are also rapidly mending fence with Damascus. And given this is the trade-transport project of the next hundred years to come investments are good business. Especially in country, which is in a desperate economic state, in no position for serious bargaining – unlike a decade earlier – and in serious need of infrastructural reconstructions, which can be done to meet the new conditions.

            It should be mentioned that in theory delivering this route all the way to Turkey is also tempting that idea is serviced by another major transit route from via Iran, connecting most of Central Asia and Azerbaijan to the European markets. And it is only logical not to put the fate of two such massive project into the hand of just one country, Turkey, which has been proven unreliable in certain times.

            Adding that up, while it is not really visible, there is a fierce rivalry between the two ports, Latakia and Haifa, though not necessarily fought between Damascus and Tel Aviv. So the Israeli leadership has a wrested interest to both cross out Latakia as a functioning port, and Syria as a safe, therefore stabile trade hub in such volume.

            And here again, the role of Russia is important, because its grip on this area is growing, but with little benefit. So unless Moscow soon starts to conduct major improvements in this part of Syria and provides the necessary protection, this role will be filled Iran on a smaller, and China on a larger level.


Where is the Russian cover?

            As mentioned before, the recently escalating Israeli attacks, and especially the latest one against Latakia caused massive uproar in the Syrian public. We also saw that Russia made a weak attempt to explain the attack. However, it should be mentioned that Russian negligence is clear in the matter.

            On 23 December, so only few days after a massive attack against Damascus and days before the against Latakia port Russian special envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentyev gave an interview to Russia today’s Arabic channel. The overall condescending tone of the interview toward Syria perfectly reflects the problem of many Syrians with the Russian presence. However, specifically about the Israeli attacks Lavrentyev’s words showed the core of the problem. That Russia is not about to prevent these attacks, until it is primarily conducted against Iranian positions or deliveries in Syria.

            As Lavrentyev reasoned, the problem is the American presence, since as long as there is an illegal American presence the Iranian help to Damascus cannot be stopped. It is needed and rational, as Damascus has the right to defend itself. However, as long as Iran has a presence in Syria, Israel has a right to defend itself from steps it feels threatening its security, which Moscow accepts. In other words, Russia has no problem with the Israeli attacks blocking Iran in Syria. But why is that?

            As mentioned before, while Russia and Iran are allies in many aspects and in Syria move somewhat coordinated to convince the Americans to leave, at the same time there is a fierce economic-strategic rivalry between them. Russia is not about to enable Iranian economic interests in Syria, which it views within its own sphere of influence.

            So there is an effective Russian air cover for Syria, but Moscow has priorities when to act and when to turn a blind eye. When it came to the Western missile attack under Trump the Syrian and Russian air defense was more than capable and showed remarkable results. Even the later Israeli attacks proved that Syrian air defense on its own is effective to block most of the attacks, unless they come from under foreign cover. But the latest attack on Latakia, however, showed that Russia not only did not block the Israeli attack, but in fact hindered the Syrian defense capabilities. That is what causing dissatisfaction and uproar.


A careful balance

            The Israeli attacks only show one symptom of the growing controversy around Russia’s presence in Syria. The similar can by said why Russia is relatively passive about the American maneuvers in the Syrian East, why it fails to counter the American campaign to set up a Kurdish autonomy similar to the Iraqi model in Syria, or why it fails to pressure Turkey more to leave Syria, or to allow the Syrian Army to liberate Idlib.

            The reason is a complicated web of careful interests. Moscow is on a collision course with Washington on a number of fields. This includes Ukraine, Belorussia, Iran and recently Kazakhstan. There are also a number of hidden power struggles with European sides concerning energy shipments, Libya, or Mali recently. Given these matters Syria is not high on the Russian agenda. So far Moscow is content to solidify its presence in Syria and not to allowing Damascus to fall. Anything beyond that is risky. But it also knows that time is on its side, as it is gaining more in Syria, while the American presence in Syria is costly and they looking for ways to leave. So it enough not to allow the Americans to depart leaving behind a Kurdish enclave, or permanent military bases.

            In this vision both Iran and Turkey are somewhat allies. The Iranians are on the forefront of unnerving the Americans here. Turkey also claims its presence justified by fighting against the Kurdish separatists. So while Moscow does not necessarily acknowledge the Turkish presence in Syria, it causes little concern as long as it is confined to Idlib, and can be a useful counter against the American objectives. Russia also has a sensitive and many times troubled partnership with Turkey, when it comes to European energy deliveries. Which is a big reason not antagonize this relation for Idlib, which is not a major concern for Moscow.

            Why these considerations can be understood on the overall strategic level, it puts a toll on the Russian-Syrian partnership. And it starts to show. So far Moscow might consider that Damascus simply has no alternative that might not be this way for long. The changing strategic landscape in the Middle East due to the receding American influence and the growing Chinese one changes. And when gradual change will transform the realities, Russia will might not be in a favorable light. The time is coming fast, when Moscow has to make a decisive decision to close the Syrian folder and play a much more active role.


Image boosting steps

            It is probably not a coincidence that lately Russia is trying to boost its image in many fronts, still mindful about the careful balance. A new Russian movie scheduled for 2022 will depict the joint Syrian-Russian second liberation of Palmyra.


            It is hardly a coincidence that in such a trouble time the Russian cinema puts forward a movie, which aims to boost the image of camaraderie between Syrian and Russian troops. So far the movie attracted good reception in Syria, but far less than anticipated.

            Also shortly after the attack on Latakia Russia conducted a major military drill around the American base at at-Tanaf. The official aim of the operation was a preparation to clean the Syrian desert from the Dā‘iš cell once again increasingly active there. Put it also held an unmistakable message threatening the American presence in Syria. It is unlikely that Washington would be seriously unnerved by this. Meaning that aim is more of an image boosting attempt to show that Russia is still an important and dedicated supporter of Syrian forces. But such a message needs results by now. Significant changes in the Syrian East, Idlib, defense against areal attacks, or significant improvement of the Syrian economic conditions.


Shaken popularity

            All these sensitive considerations are well known and discussed in Syria. And indeed, when the Russian intervention started few questioned these details. Moscow’s popularity seemed unshakable, as most understood that Moscow alone can hardly tackle Dā‘iš, the other terrorist groups, the Kurdish separatists, the Turkish invasion and the illegal American presence, while still thwarting the Israeli aggressions. But after seven years of its presence in Syria and large areas liberated by the Syrian Army, the question starts to be more pressing. What is Russia giving in exchange for its growing presence in Syrian’s military and civilian infrastructure and its economy? It might be difficult to expel the Americans and the Turks from the country, but could it not at least block the Israeli missiles? What happened to the advanced missile defense systems so praised few years ago, which made gained their fame right in Syria?

            In light of the growing threats by NATO in Ukraine and about Belarus, the Iranian talks in Vienna and the uneasy energy partnership with Turkey Syrian grievances weight little for Moscow no. But they should. Because Damascus on many economic and social fields is struggling, arguably more then before, when the war was fierce. And while the Syrian government has only few allies to choose from and by far Russia is the most capable, it can not turn a blind eye to the growing dissatisfaction for long. Russia’s image in the Syrian streets plummeted, reached levels lower than that of Iran. And unless these concerns are not dealt with, or some major achievement provided by liberating new territories soon a rupture will be hard to evade. Either between Moscow and Damascus, or between the Syrian leadership and its people. This pressure is growing. The clock it ticking.