Focus on the planned international conference on Syria, to be chaired by the United States and Russia, risks obscuring the growing confrontation between Washington and Moscow in the Middle East. Success, if indeed the conclave actually does take place, depends on these two powers sharing a common goal and an agreed methodology on how to realize objectives. Neither exist.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted the American idea for an international meeting reluctantly, with studied indifference. Moscow fell in because, while it seeks to undercut American initiatives, a conclave without the Russians sharing the gavel is judged more costly to the Kremlin’s international influence than any boycott.
Mr. Putin is making it clear both to Russia’s regional allies and to the international community that it will pursue its interests by protecting its closest ally in the region, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The Russians have been embarrassed by the ease with which the Israelis were able to penetrate and bomb at will in Syria. From their perspective this must not happen again as their own prestige and standing as a great power, and hence their real interests worldwide, are seen to be at stake. They are seen as unable successfully to defend their friends.
It is in this context that Russia’s willingness to deliver S-300 missiles to the Assad regime should be understood. The European Union decision to facilitate arms shipments to the Syrian opposition provided an enticing opportunity to deliver a substantial quid pro quo and escalate the confrontation.
The S-300 system is intended by Russia to restore Syrian sovereignty over its airspace, which it had de facto ceded to Israel. The system is intended to discourage Israeli air attacks against Syrian targets, particularly overland arms shipments transiting Syria from Iran through Iraq to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The system is sophisticated and complex, necessitating expertise and skill, which the Syrian forces do not now have. But properly manned and deployed it would constitute a significant constraint not only on Israel but on any other outside military intervention. Given their considerable range, these missiles would technically allow Syria to go after any aircraft in Israeli airspace.
This Israel will not tolerate, although the Israeli government will probably hold fire if and until the system threatens to become operational.
The announcement of missile deliveries has two targeted audiences: First, Moscow’s allies in the region, particularly Damascus, but also Iran, to reassure them that Russia will stand by their side however tough the going. Secondly, the Israelis, Europeans and Americans, who are given the message that Russia will protect its friends by establishing its own red lines – signalling that Western direct intervention intended to eliminate the Assad regime will not be tolerated.
Whether these missiles become operational or not may well depend on Israeli and American positions on future red-line understandings. If the Russians decide the S-300 in Syrian hands should not become operational – a complex process utterly dependent on Moscow’s expertise – their mere presence will nevertheless change the balance on the playing field because the potential will remain.
Moscow has been utterly consistent in support of the Assad regime: diplomatically, through economic and financial support; and most importantly through a steady flow of weaponry, facilitated by its naval base in Tartus, the only such Russian facility outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.
Now having provided Damascus with the S-300 missile, by far the most advanced and sophisticated weapons system yet available in the Arab world, the game has changed.
There are still ways out of the immediate crisis. The Israelis and Americans are lobbying Moscow to withhold shipments yet to be dispatched. Nor will Israel desist from attacking weaponry being moved under Mr. Assad’s auspices to Hezbollah, whatever the international pressure or the S-300 threat.
The missiles heighten tension across the spectrum in an already poisoned environment. By way of example, the Lebanese president Michel Sulieman, an ally of Hezbollah, has called on that organization to withdraw its forces from Syria where they have been engaged in intense fighting. Shia Hezbollah is at daggers drawn with Lebanese Sunni militias, which support the opposition.
All this plays out against the background of Russian-American competition where Moscow sees its global interests, already diminished, at further risk in the Middle East. It is unlikely to back down, whatever the risks of feeding further conflagration, particularly as the situation in Syria seems to be moving to the regime’s distinct advantage. If this continues the Russians may become tougher still.
Michael Bell is a former Ambassador of Canada to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. He is the Paul Martin (Sr.) Scholar in International Relations at the University of Windsor.