New realignment in the Middle East
By Manish Rai
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to set up a joint team from both countries as Moscow ramps up its military support for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who is losing ground to Islamist militants in country’s bloody civil war.
Israel has set up a joint mechanism with the Russian military to coordinate their operations in Syria and avoid any accidental confrontations between the two. Israeli Prime Minister Mr Netanyahu said the meetings in Moscow were aimed at preventing “misunderstandings” in Syria between the Russian and Israeli military. “We established a mechanism to prevent those misunderstandings” said Mr Netanyahu. Each of the militaries deputy chiefs will hold their first meeting soon and will discuss coordination of aerial, naval and electronic operations around Syria. Israel in the past has occasionally conducted airstrikes in Syria to foil suspected handovers of Russian or Iranian-supplied arms to Assad’s guerrilla allies in Lebanon. The new talks could prevent a showdown between Israel and Russia in the region. This meeting between the two leaders is of potentially great importance and it may change geo-political realignment of the region. This meeting was attended by the head of the IDF, the chief of military intelligence, and their Russian counterparts which clearly illustrates its importance.
The two countries have historically been on opposite sides of the Middle East divide, with the former Soviet Union being the principal supplier of military equipment and training for the Egyptian and Syrian armies for decades and Israel was always the main United States ally in the region. However, in the complex situation which has evolved in Syria both Jerusalem and Moscow have defined areas where cooperation can be mutually beneficial. Israel wants to act swiftly for safeguarding its own interests which is more important than pleasing the US government or American Jews.
What’s happening in the region is part of a renewal of the Cold War. Israel does not want to be engaged in a proxy-war between the US and Russia, such as occurred in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, with great disaster for those places. The most obvious reason which concern Israel is its air force’s freedom of action over Syria in curbing arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon and maintaining air surveillance.
The Russians are amassing a substantial air arm at a base on the Syrian coast and have begun installing ground-to-air missiles, which could pose a formidable threat to Israeli aircraft if there is no coordination. Moreover relation between Israel and Russia was not bad all the time. The Soviet Union was one of the first countries to officially recognize Israel in 1948. There are lots of reasons for the recently improved ties between Russia and Israel, but key among them is the fact that Israel has become increasingly Russian in the past 20 years. Putin is deeply concerned with the wellbeing of Russian nationals wherever they reside, up to and including invading other countries to protect their interests, and 15 percent of Israeli immigrants are from the former Soviet Union.
Russians can also benefit from good relations with the Israeli. Israel has quality intelligence on everything that is taking place in Syria and as time goes by the Russians might need Israel’s assistance in confronting the complexities of the fighting there. Israeli security sources say they could be in a position to inform the Russians about plans by Syrian rebels to hit Russian military targets or provide information about persons they might be seeking. Financially, Russia is struggling with low oil prices and Western sanctions, and it’s keenly looking for new markets for its armaments, Israel is a generous customer with a large defense budget. Putin desperately wants Russia to be a world power again, to be consequential and at the centre of major global decisions. Russia has good relations with Shia camp led by Iran and after having cordial relations with Israelis as well they will be in position to influence whole region significantly.
The Russians and the Israelis agreed to establish a hotline between their militaries in order to minimise the chance of their hostile encounter. Efforts are also being made to step-up Russian-Israeli trade relations. Russia and Israel have been in discussions about increasing Israeli agricultural exports to Russia as well as other new economic projects. Russia and Israel launched discussions on the prospects of creating a free-trade zone known as the Customs Union, which would bring together Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Israel. It’s clearly visible now that a new major realignment is emerging in the Middle East. But how it will going to work and its repercussion on the region is has to been seen in the future. But one thing is certain that the shifts in the Mideast equations mark perhaps some of the most dramatic strategic changes in the region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org