The Current Geopolitical Shifts in the Middle East

Syria's three-party strategic system, with the minor addition of the United States and its now remote allies on the field, is undergoing a radical transformation. Analysis by Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori

Presidents Rouhani, Putin, Erdogan in a meeting in Ankara to discuss Syria's future, April 2018 (Photo: AP)

Syria's three-party strategic system, with the minor addition of the United States and its now remote allies on the field, is undergoing a radical transformation.

This is also due to the clear signs that the United States is sending to everyone that concern, in particular, their quick leaving Syria.

President Trump is not entirely wrong when he says that Syria "has always been an old friend" of Russia and hence the Syrian issue is in Russia’s traditional area of interest.

This is true but, if we all thought this way, in the mid-nineteenth century China would have been reduced to its coastal regions only.

In geopolitics, we do not talk with the logic of a golf club.

However, if the United States no longer cares about Syria, said country and its equilibria will still deal with the Americans.

In fact, the United States will soon be bottled up in its CENTCOM of Tampa, which could no longer operate directly and effectively in Northern Africa (with the jihad going on in Central Africa and in Mediterranean Africa), nor in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the play has gone too far with the agreement between the US contingents and the Taliban.

Exactly the Taliban, the Islamic "students" that the Pakistani allies, apparently very loyal to the United States, trained with their excellent intelligence services and sent to fight against the United States.

At the time, however, the United States was a close ally of India and hence prevented Pakistan from having the strategic depth it absolutely needed to oppose the first Indian nuclear salvo and respond to the second one.

And not even the United States could now use the Al Udeid Command located in Qatar, the CAOC that the US itself has put in difficulty, by following Saudi Arabia against the "terrorist" Qatar and hence – with a great leap in logic – "Iran's friend." What about Saudi Arabia?

Hence the Americans have also been bottled up in their beautiful and very recent Al Udeid base, controlled by all the Arab forces on the field as if they were hyperactive children.

Therefore, by now, the game in Syria involves only three countries, namely Iran, Israel, and Russia.

While the reborn "Syrian-Iraqi Caliphate" is reconquering some areas around Deir ez-Zor and is directly threatening the Kurdish areas and the major Syrian cities of the region.

Another crazy variable, which could bring the United States back into play and prolong the time needed for the stabilization of the Syrian territory, which is exactly what the "Caliphate" wants.

Meanwhile, however, the two Kurdish groups have allied with Bashar al-Assad, knowing that the real player of US interests in Syria is Turkey.

Iran, Israel, and the Russian Federation. This is the starry sky above Syria. Hence much closer negotiations than in the past on the control of the Syrian territory between Israel and the Russian Federation, the only real regional actors interested in controlling the whole Syrian territory.

Here Iran’s intelligence and security policy comes into play, with good technical knowledge and the ability to play its political weight well.

The weight of Iranian intelligence services is lower than others’ in Syria, but it is certainly not negligible.

Clearly, Russia does not care much that Iran takes its continuous line of connection between Iran and the Lebanese Central and Southern coasts.

However, that was an idea of the past. Currently, the issue is much more complex. Today the Russian Federation cannot fail to put Israeli interests at the core of its strategic Middle East choices.

Nevertheless, if Iran takes its advanced control network on the border of the Bekaa-Golan Valley – that Israel reconquered in 1975 – Russia will no longer hold Syria, which will have an immense territory – covered by Iranian lines southwards – to free itself from the Russian Federation’s control and then fall into Iran’s hands. Exactly what Iran is waiting for.

Iran must not have stable bases or buffer areas in Syria. This is also in Russia’s interest. It would be a trouble for Russia and Israel altogether if that happened.

Nor should we forget the level of pressure that the Lebanese-Iranian axis over (and inside) the Bekaa-Golan region could exert on the Russian bases of Latakia and Tartus, in the Mediterranean, in addition to Iran's tension on the Russian facilities of Khmeimim, on an airport, and finally on the T4 base (Thiyas) in the Homs Governorate, east of Palmira.

Let us not also forget the Russian base of Shayrat, at the 50th Air Brigade in the Homs area.

The "corridor" – as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps currently calls it – runs from Iraq to Syria, precisely to Deir ez-Zor.

It is a real and powerful strategic target for Iran that has not – but absolutely wants – an outlet to the Mediterranean, under its full control and not under the now irrelevant organization of Lebanese security.

It goes up to the Southern Lebanese coasts, obviously passing not only through the capital city, but also through Deir Qanun, Kafra and, finally, the Litani River.

However, with a parallel connection between Beirut and the Hezbollah command of the Litani area.

Hence, the Russian strategic thinking is currently simple: to prevent Iran's further expansion to Syria, as well as to mainly avoid the persistence of the conflict in that area, and to maintain good relations with Israel.

In fact – and this is particularly interesting to us – the Russian Federation has partially deactivated its S-300 missile defenses that operate in Syria and will also do so in the future.

The S-300s are a sequence of long-range surface-to-air missiles manufactured by Russia.

As clearly seen in Syria, they operate very effectively against aircraft, cruise ships, and ballistic missiles.

Its radars are capable of chasing over 100 targets simultaneously since they can engage in battle 24-36 of them at the same time.

The missile range of the S-300s is between 150 and 200 kilometers, with fully automatic operation.

What does Iran want?

Firstly, it wants Russia not to selectively deprive the S-300 systems in the case of aircraft, missiles, and carriers arriving in the corridor or the Bekaa-Golan region from Israel.

In addition, some experts of the Iranian intelligence services have noted a strong correlation between the organization of the Israeli attacks and the timing and positions of the new Hezbollah and Pasdaran launching points.

In fact, in mid-January, Russia announced that the training of Syrian troops on the S-300 would be completed in March when the S-300 batteries should become operational.

But they will probably be "operated" selectively and, in any case, always under the immediate and active control of the Russian Supreme Command.

Iran, however, hopes for a miracle, i.e., that the weapons of a quasi-ally of Israel – namely Russia that is currently in Syria – become the best defense against Israel’s attacks on the Iranian-Lebanese "corridor."

For Iran, the optimal target would be the dual and simultaneous attack between the Bekaa-Golan region and the Litani River, coordinated by actions south of the Israeli border supported by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

We will talk about it later.

In fact, we should not forget the many small organizations of the radical Palestinian universe, which can no longer be connected with the Sunni axis that no longer wants to annoy Israel.

This happens precisely against Iran. It is a broad political-military axis mainly orphan of Hamas, which is now a criminal-business organization still devoted to raising funds among the most gullible and naive Western "democrats."

Or even worse.

Two Islamist Norths and a South, with a new master, namely Iran, simultaneously allied against the Jewish State.

This is the strategic dream of the Shi’ite Republic of Iran.

Russia, however, still wants to carry out joint actions with Iran, but always outside Syria.

Moreover, since the beginning of the Russian conflict in Syria, in 2015, it has been openly recognizing the central role played by Israel.

In fact, Russia wants its cake (the common interests with Iran, especially in the oil sector) and eat it, too (the full and reliable alliance with Israel).

Russia still wants to do much business with Iran in Venezuela, where both actors operate with great care.

Moscow, however, also wants to collaborate with Iran for the Arab League's recent and future peace initiatives, which should create a new climate of stability throughout the Greater Middle East.

It would be nice to believe it.

Conversely, also based on the official documents of the meetings with Russia, Iran immediately wants to use the "corridor" for a diagonal attack against Israel and later acquire Syria as large part of a Shi’ite territory. It also wants to operate as an ally of Russia – only and always in oil terms – between Qatar, Bahrain and the Emirates, which are areas in which the Russian Federation has been working very well in recent years. Iran, however, is working worse there.

Hence, Iran could strengthen its positions in Syria, especially to force Russia to surrender there, as well as to force it into a harsher position toward Israel.

Nevertheless, should Iran do so, it could lead to the strong tendency – in agreement between Russia and Israel – to immediately and harshly close the "corridor" and quickly get rid of the massive presence of Pasdaran and Hezbollah.

Hence, Iran must also consider its strategic equation well.

Moreover, reverting to the positions on the ground, Russia is taking additional five months to train the Syrians to use the S-300s.

With ongoing connections of the equipment both with the Humeinym base in Syria, but above all with the Russian Central Air Command in Moscow.

Putin will leave not even his field knife uncontrolled on the Syrian territory.

We have already seen the results of Russia’s very strict tactical and operational control of the Syrian forces, which would have certainly not achieved these excellent and quick results if they had not had patient and constant guardians from Moscow.

Obviously, Russia does not want any relationship between its weapons in Syrian territory and any attack against Israeli targets.

This implies that Russia wants to be absolutely sure that no Syrian and Iranian force, whether airborne or not, can use the S-300s against the Jewish State.

This approach has always been part of the Russian "Grand Strategy," unlike the relationship between Russia and Iran that has been cold and only technical throughout the development of the Syrian wars.

Who knows what could happen if the Hezbollah bases on the Mediterranean were to prevent or harm the Russian operations between Latakia and Tartus.

Russia knows all too well it cannot trust Iran, but it will still try to make it carry out operations outside its great Unitarian and Mediterranean Shi’ite dream – although this will certainly be very difficult.

What would happen if the Israeli aircraft, searching for Iranian targets on the Galilee-Bekaa-Golan line, bombed an S-300 or something else and created a severe dispute with Russia?

What would happen if all this could also trigger a short-term struggle between Shi’ite powers, in the North, in addition to local Syrian populations, also hit by the "Zionist entity"?

This, too, would be the incident preferred by the Shi’ite Republic of Iran, which is now trying to unleash a great all-out clash, on Syria's Southern borders, to lay all the blame on Israel. This would make Hezbollah and Pasdaran shift from the guerrilla warfare phase to the "people's war" phase, which is more suitable for them.

Or we could also think of a mediation in which the bases of the precision-guided missiles brought from the "corridor" to Northern Lebanon and the Bekaa region are destroyed by Israel’s quick operations, which eliminate them all, while the S-300s around Damascus are still silent.

Clearly, time is pressing.

Everything still depends on Russia's ability to blackmail Iran, which – indeed – is fading ever more.

A possible solution could be a strong demonstration action by Israel on the skies of the advanced Hezbollah missile positions, not envisaging the use of S-300s, thus also allowing to reduce risks significantly.

While the "corridor" – which annoys both Russia and Israel – would be well closed in the meantime.

All this can only be done by the end of March.

Another option could be a bilateral operation between the North and the South, between Russia and Israel, but only on the "corridor," which isolates the batteries of Hezbollah missiles and makes it clear to the "Party of God" that the missiles are no longer needed. It should also make clear that the missiles will not be repaired or "fueled" and that their communications with Iran will be very problematic.

Obviously, if the United States does not fully leave Syria, there will be no argument that will make Iran go away from Bashar al-Assad’ Syria.

It is their favorite counterargument.

Like two blind people, lost in their dream of the great Shi’ite region or even the greater Middle East "democracy," Iran and the United States justify each other, but without being able to do much any longer.

Furthermore, in a few choice words, Russia asked Netanyahu to use his influence on President Trump to immediately make the remaining US troops – that are there without a precise strategic idea – withdraw from Syria.

Inter alia, the demand to the Israeli prime minister implied the Russian request to make the American soldiers also withdraw from the Al-Tanf base.

It is a large base located on the border between Syria and Iraq, in the Homs Governorate.

Clearly, for the Russians who operate much in that area, the Al-Tanf base – the old headquarters of a "coalition against terrorism" organized by the United States and later left to the "Free Syrian Army," which is now an umbrella of terrorist groups that is currently self-named "Revolutionary Commando Army" – is a constant danger.

It is also obvious that this old base is only a remnant – however currently jihadist, albeit certainly "moderate" – of an old set of US forces in Syria.

The request for Netanyahu to put pressure on President Trump, with a view to putting an end to these two issues, had been made to Israel about six months ago, in late September, but without results. Clearly, Israel does not fully trust Russia yet. And Russia does not want other "godfathers" for Israel in the global world since the United States has now been "branded" or blocked outside the Middle East.

Also upon Russia’s explicit direct requests, President Trump has not yet clarified the issue of the Al-Tanf base, thus being vague about its possible future use, although associating the timing for its closure with that of the now certain evacuation of all US troops from Syria.

Both Israel and Jordan, however, have made an explicit request to the United States to keep the Al-Tanf base open.

Why?

Simply because this position is excellent to prevent Russia (and probably also Iran) from closing a base where also Jordanian illegal forces operate since Al-Tanf is right on Jordan’s border.

Israel does not want to be sealed in that important region by a base in Russian hands, with dangerous friends, while it does not even want to deprive its friendly country, namely Jordan, of a very useful base for possible bilateral operations.

Nevertheless, if Israel were to accept Russian pressure for the Al-Tanf base – which is only an annoying mirage for it – Russia could make a nice gift to Israel.

In fact, it could prevent pro-Iran forces from slipping between the Jordanian and Israeli borders, thus recreating, elsewhere, another more artisanal and less sophisticated "corridor."

Hence, Israel will ask Putin for some things before scrapping the Al-Tanf base: firstly, to create an effective, controllable and real distance of at least 80 kilometers between the Iranian and pro-Shiite lines and Israel’s Northern borders.

How? Currently, the control systems are manifold and very accurate, but the point is that we must be able to react before the start of the operation and 80 kilometers are always too few.

However, if the Russian Federation could guarantee an effective and armed line of control between its Iranian allies and the Israeli border, the negotiations could be made. Basically, it would be convenient also for Russia.

Hence, how can we convince Putin? Reminding him that being fooled by an ally is certainly not the best way to become the hegemonic country of the Greater Middle East.

Others did the same and we saw how they ended up.

Israel's second request to Russia is to stop arms trafficking, by air, from Iran to Syria and Hezbollah.

So far Russia has never accepted this.

It must also be made clear, however, that if Russia does not get carried away by Iran in Syria, there could be a successful diarchy between Israel and the Russian Federation in the future, with all the allies they have in common in the Gulf, and no power outside the region could bother them.

For Russia, the message could also be persuasive – and even credible.

Finally, Israel wants the factories near the Syrian-Iranian bases on the Syrian territory, which usually produce precision materials for Hezbollah missile launches, to be completely and permanently scrapped.

Easier said than done. Iran could re-establish them elsewhere, in Jordan or in Lebanon, or even in Iraq.

In that case, however, they could easily be checked in due time, even for a future targeted attack.

Here, probably, an agreement could easily be reached.

Not even Russia likes this production of weapons, which it cannot fully control.

And here comes Russia’s trump card: if no global negotiations with Iran are made, there will be no military operation on the Syrian skies that will enable Israel to have peace.

This is true – but it is also true that the Israeli air operations give Russia the strong power to be credible with Iran.

There is no way out. Either we make Iran understand that its "corridor" does not work or cannot work – and hence it can only give few and not even effective missiles to the Shi’ite Lebanese – or nothing can be done about it.

This is a possible agreement of convenience between Israel and Russia.

Furthermore, in any case, the missile operations of the Lebanese Shi’ites could be used not only for a real war, but above all to terrorize, change and distort the behavior of the Israeli population and government.

As already mentioned, the leaders of the Palestinian Resistance Committees, operating south of the Israeli border, were cheerfully hosted by Hezbollah in Beirut on January 30 last.

Hence the issue here would be to have – from the Palestinian Resistance Committees and before the elections scheduled in Israel on April 9 – a series of missile attacks, especially in the Gaza Strip, a perfect point for the real attack, but also for distracting Israel in relation to a strong action from the North.

The timing gap between the two is essential for the success of the Iranian-Shi’ite-Palestinian operation.

Furthermore, the Palestinian Resistance Committees are small organizations in Hamas’ hands.

This means that Hamas has become Hezbollah’s direct counterpart in the South.

In this case, the issue lies in avoiding – with the usual intelligence operations – mass missile attacks, which should take place about three weeks before the elections. The right psycho-political timing.

We could also envisage, however, a quick and surgical attack by Israel on Hamas before their operations, with a view to belittling them vis-à-vis their funders and associate the fate of Hamas with that of these new pro-Shi’ite groups.