In 2015 Russia surprised the world when it committed Russian troops and military hardware to defend the Assad regime in Syria. With Russian assistance the Assad government was able to make substantial gains against the various rebel forces who had been threatening it.
Russia caught the world off guard again in March 2016 when it announced that its forces would be withdrawing from Syria. Exactly what “withdrawal” means is hard to define. It is true that many of the 4,000 ground forces that had been deployed have returned to Russia, but it also is clear that the Russians will continue to operate the airbase it built last year near Latakia as well as the naval base it has long held at Tartus (having inherited it from the former USSR).
Why did Vladimir Putin decide to withdraw (even if only partially) from Syria? Presumably because he had achieved his objectives from his intervention. And what has Russia achieved? Firstly, it has saved the Assad regime, at least for the time being. Secondly and more importantly, Putin has restored Russia’s superpower status by demonstrating its resolve to extend its geo-political reach into the Middle East. Thirdly, Russia has frustrated the ambitions of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to be the patrons of a reconstructed Syria.
It is clear that the Assad regime cannot hope to retain its hold on Syria in the long term; Russia’s involvement has ensured it will play a key role in determining who fills the vacuum when, finally, there is regime change in Syria.
While the United States and her allies vacillated with regard to Syria, Russia took decisive action which changed the course of the Syrian civil war. In an article by Amotz Asa-el entitled “Russia’s Retreat? in the April 2016 issue of the Australia/Israel Review he made this observation which resonates with the scenario outlined in Ezekiel 38:
The region-wide impression that Moscow initiates and Washington responds, that the Kremlin impacts while the White House talks, and that Russia does not abandon allies the way Obama abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarek, will constitute a major diplomatic challenge for the next American President.
While Israel has benefited from neutralisation of the Syrian army as a threat there is no guarantee that the forces which replace the Assad regime in Syria will be any more well disposed towards Israel than the current regime. Israel has watched events in Syria closely to ensure that they do not impact adversely upon the Jewish state, and intervened at times when necessary to protect her interests. She has also benefited from the Syrian civil war in terms of her regional position, in particular those nations which Ezekiel 38 indicates will be allied with Tarshish at the time of the end. Amotz Asa-el made the point that, as a result of the Syrian civil war:
Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states appreciate Israel as a regional stabiliser, and as an ally in their confrontation with Islamism. The war also made Ankara reconsider its anti-Israel U-turn last decade …
Putin’s involvement in Syria has, however, impressed upon Israel the fact that its relationship with Russia is now more critical and sensitive than it has ever been. In that context it is interesting to note Israel’s reticence to criticise Russia’s intrusions into the Ukraine. It also is interesting to see Russia’s continued interest in seeking to help Israel in its exploitation of the major oil and gas fields recently identified off the Israeli coast. Perhaps most remarkably, Israel now regards Russia as potential peace broker with her enemies in the Middle East.
A mere 48 hours after Russia announced its “withdrawal” from Syria, President Rivlin of Israel made an unscheduled visit to Moscow, postponing a previously arranged visit to Australia to facilitate the trip. At that meeting Russia agreed to two requests from Israel:
- That Russia continue its co-ordination with the Israeli Defence Force with regard to operations in Syria; and
- That Russia work to restore the UN peace keeping force that, prior to the Syrian civil war, helped to maintain stability on the Syrian-Israeli border.
Amotz Asa-el concluded his article with this paragraph:
The role of peacemaker which Putin is now in a position to play is hardly what his international image currently evokes. Nonetheless, the world opinion that does not expect him to pacify enemies is the same world opinion that did not expect him to intervene in Syria last year, or to retreat from it now.
Russia has demonstrated its capacity and willingness to intervene in long-running internecine conflict in the Middle East. It is not hard to imagine how Russia’s intervention in Syria could be repeated in the near future a little further south. When she does, we might expect from the terms of Ezekie 38 that the powers opposed to Russia will be as flat-footed and muted in their response as they have been in the case of Syria.