Russian military police forces have established eight static positions along the 1974 disengagement line and have registered a strong presence with UNDOF observer forces on the occupied Golan Heights line. Moreover, a Russian force headed by a Russian General arrived, for the second time this year, at the Lebanese Hezbollah post at the Syrian-Lebanese borders at al-Jdeideh. The Russians wanted to establish communication equipment, dishes, and electronics in the same area controlled by Hezbollah. The Lebanese organisation maintains a substantial force in the area after defeating al-Qaeda and ISIS early this year. Hezbollah’s presence is said to be focused on preventing the smuggling of weapons and jihadist Takfiris between the two countries. It is clear that Russia is expanding its control, slowly but surely, over the Levant. However, it is still unclear how far the Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to go.
High ranking sources operating in Syria confirmed to me that “a Russian General arrived with a unit at al-Jdeideh asking to establish a communication system and dishes connecting the Russian forces deployed in the area with a military base in Hmeymim and with Moscow, considered to be the centre of the entire Russian and Syria military operation since mid-2015. The Russian unit wanted to use Hezbollah’s location but was asked to choose another one much higher and further away. Following a quick inspection of the place, the Russian General accepted the offer and based his men at a distance from Hezbollah.”
According to these sources, there are tens of thousands of Russian troops spread all over Syria, with the exception of the north, occupied by Turkey and the US.
There is no doubt that Russia has reached an understanding with the US that the Levant has become its own operational stage and area of influence. This will lead to an expansion of Russian forces all over Syrian territory without exception. This also means that Moscow won’t accept the presence of al-Qaeda or “Hurras al-Deen” or whatever name the group hides behind, and therefore will work towards taking away the territory it is controlling to-date (even if eliminating the ideology is not possible.)
In the south, Syria’s allies (Hezbollah and Iran) have pulled back their troops because the reason for their presence has come to an end following the liberation of all borders and the elimination of ISIS in the Quneitra pocket. These forces have taken up another position facing ISIS in the east of Suweida province and in al-Badiya to eliminate the last ISIS presence in the area. The Idlib battle seems to have been halted to give the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan time to regroup his proxies and move al-Qaeda away from the territory he controls in north-east Syria.
The south of Syria has returned to the control of the Syrian government and only Syrian forces remain in Suweida, Daraa and Quneitra provinces, as was the case prior to 2011, the year the war on Syria began. The presence of Iranian advisors continues to be registered in every Syrian unit, offering advice and coordination with the central command and control in various provinces.
Russian forces are reaching distant territories in Syria, even areas that are not under threat. The Russian command does not consider Hezbollah an enemy force; on the contrary, as a Russian General told Hezbollah forces in al-Jdeideh: “You are our allies, we want to be next to you and we are not asking you to leave”.
This put the Hezbollah forces at ease and they asked their command for advice. Another location, not very far away from the one chosen by the General, was indicated to him. The General accepted the new location and based his men on higher ground to install his sophisticated equipment.
It is not clear if Russia will ever ask Hezbollah to leave Syria, or even to leave the Syrian-Lebanese borders. If Moscow does one day decide to take over the entire Syrian-Israeli dossier (securing a peace agreement and the return of occupied territory), it is most unlikely that such an audacious step will be successful. Israel is not ready for peace nor to give back the wealthy and strategic Golan Heights to Syria. This will limit Russian president’s freedom of action and confront him with the very complicated reality of the Middle Eastern dossier Russia has been absent from since 1990. Dealing with Hezbollah’s presence in Syria in the near future is most unlikely even if the Lebanese organisation has no intention of confronting Russia or nor of competing with Russia in the Levant.
Israel is not only unwilling to let go of the Syrian and Lebanese occupied territories but is even escalating its demands: During the Netanyahu-Lavrov meeting, Israel requested the withdrawal of all Iranian forces, the removal of all long range and accurate missiles from Syria, and the cessation of all weapon shipments from Syria to Lebanon-Hezbollah.
Russia can’t and won’t ask Iran to leave Syria because Tehran is a part of the strategic alliance with President Assad within the “Axis of Resistance.” Moreover, it can’t ask Syria to stop arming itself because it is the same Russia that is providing and equipping the Syrian army. It can’t ask Damascus to stop the transit of weapons through its territory either, because Syria and Hezbollah are tied by a very strong bond. Indeed, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad opened his warehouses to Hezbollah when the Israelis attacked Lebanon in 2006, and the organisation rushed to support Assad in the war imposed on Syria in 2011.
Russia is also struggling with Israel’s continuous bombing and violations of Syrian air space. Moreover, Tel Aviv continues to say that it has the “right to defend itself” by bombing targets in Syria.
Even if the battle of Idlib has been postponed to allow Turkey to “cleanse” the city first from al-Qaeda, the battle against the vestiges of ISIS is ready and will aim to put an end to the group’s control of all territory, restoring it to Syrian army control. However, the final chapter of the war in the Middle East hasn’t yet been written. The balance in the Levant is bigger than Middle Eastern players now that Russia has decided to continue its heavy involvement in Syria. The presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops is the best witness to this. Russia will manage to push the US away from Syria, but this doesn’t mean it has become the only partner for Middle Eastern countries.
Top Photo: Russian forces with the UNDOF on the 1974 line with Israel.