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The Latakia doctrine puts Russia in a bind - analysis

The Jerusalem Post logo The Jerusalem Post 12/29/2021 By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Smoke rises from a fire in a container storage area, after Syrian state media reported an Israeli air strike on the port of Latakia on December 7. © (photo credit: SANA/REUTERS) Smoke rises from a fire in a container storage area, after Syrian state media reported an Israeli air strike on the port of Latakia on December 7.

Two airstrikes on the key port of Latakia, Syria, in the same month have raised eyebrows.

A report in The Wall Street Journal noted not only that Syria has accused Israel of the strike on the port this week, but also that a US official indicated that the Iranian presence at the facility “put a big target on civilian infrastructure that would not be targeted otherwise.”  

The fires at the port burned throughout the day on December 28, showing that whatever was destroyed at the port was flammable and likely composed of munitions or other dangerous cargo transported from Iran to its allies, possibly being prepared for a final destination with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This makes the strike on December 28 larger than the December 7 strike.  

Both incidents raise eyebrows because Latakia is near several sensitive Russian bases in Syria, including the Khmeimim airbase and the Tartus naval base.

Iranian Alvand warship is pictured at a dock in the Syrian coastal city Latakia (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER IRAN) © Provided by The Jerusalem Post Iranian Alvand warship is pictured at a dock in the Syrian coastal city Latakia (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER IRAN)

It’s important to note that Russia has S-400 air-defense systems in this area. However, reports at RIA Novosti apparently indicate Russia didn’t use air defenses. This report comes in the wake of Syrians wondering why nothing was done to prevent the airstrikes on December 28.

It could be that Russia has no interest in defending illegal Iranian shipments of munitions to Latakia. It could be that the reasoning indicated to Novosti is that a Russian plane was landing in the area. This conjures up memories of the September 2018 incident in which Russia blamed Israel for causing Syrian air defense to shoot down a Russian IL-20 plane in the same area. According to the BBC at the time, four Israeli F-16s were carrying out an operation and Syrian air defense fired an S-200 which struck the Russian plane.

In the wake of that incident, Russia was supposed to provide Syria with S-300 missiles. But an enduring mystery followed that story. The S-300s were not deployed or used.

Haaretz asked in May 2020 why Syria wasn’t “firing its S-300s at Israeli jets.” Syrian regime media often says that Syria is able to down incoming missiles and makes large boasts about its abilities. However, in reality Syrian air defense often fires wildly, and its missiles go astray. One missile hit Cyprus, and in April 2021 a missile flew so far it landed in southern Israel.  

Furthermore, in September and October 2015, soon after Russia began larger operations in Syria, there were deconfliction talks between Israel and Russia regarding Syria.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was coordinating with Russia at the time.

However, things have changed since 2015, and the Assad regime has retaken a large swath of Syria. In 2018, it retook areas near the Golan Heights, with Hezbollah establishing a presence there alongside Iranian elements, which is a major threat.

Reports by Alma Research and Education Center have pointed to Hezbollah now having a large-scale drone program and also establishing air defense in the Qalamoun mountains in Lebanon.

In August 2019 Israel struck a Hezbollah drone team near the Golan, and in recent months Iran has also threatened the US Tanf base in Syria, which is near the Jordanian and Iraqi border, with drone attacks. In mid-December, a UK warplane intercepted a drone flying toward Tanf. Reports have indicated Iran targeted Tanf in response to Israeli airstrikes.

The previous US administration supported Israel’s role in Syria, and the coordination for Israel’s efforts there to stop Iranian entrenchment was important.

Iran has nevertheless increased its entrenchment.

It sought to move 3rd Khordad air defense to T-4 base in April 2018. That was after a February 2018 incident where Iran flew a drone from T-4 into Israeli airspace. Iran also did the same with a drone from Iraq in May 2021.  

Moreover, Russia has put out mixed messages about Israel’s airstrikes in Syria.

Russia exposed details of alleged Israeli airstrikes in November 2019, even saying Israel flew over Jordanian airspace in an airstrike. Condemnation occurred in December 2018, August 2020, and October 2021, as well as reports in July that indicated Russia was moving to reduce or prevent Israeli airstrikes in July of this year.  

However, the two incidents in Latakia have not resulted in any clear signals from Russia. This may be due to the fact that Iran has sought to shift the movement of precision-guided munitions or other threats to Latakia, rather than move them via Albukamal and Iraq, or via T-4 base.

Sending them up north puts the materials closer to Lebanon and puts them under the Russian air defense umbrella. However, that umbrella appears to be shut at the moment when it comes to Iran’s meddling.

In the past, rumors have indicated that Russia and Iran do not share the same aims in Syria. Russia wants to strengthen the Syrian regime, which has made a major comeback recently. It has been speaking more with Gulf countries, Egypt and Jordan, as well as Iraq. The goal of these states is to bring it back to the Arab League.

Meanwhile, Iran wants to use the weakened Syrian regime to kind of hollow it out and make Syria an advanced Iranian base. That inevitably relies on the Syrian regime being weak and lets Iran run a swath of Syria from Albukamal to T-4 and areas near the Golan.

But letting the Iranian octopus openly put tentacles in Latakia would perhaps be a bridge too far for Moscow. Moscow doesn’t want a target on every key area of Syria. It wants the regime to have breathing space.

This means that Russia may hedge its bets in regard to what is happening in Latakia. However, that may also not be the case, and Moscow may be distracted by other tensions with the US over Ukraine.

There are many issues at play, not the least of which is the fact the US could leave eastern Syria or the Tanf base in the next year.

An Iran deal might influence that decision or Iranian attacks on US forces in Syria. This makes the current context a multisided puzzle.

Adding Latakia into that puzzle as an area of Iranian infiltration and trafficking in weapons makes the Syria conflict more complex, at a time when reports indicated there was far less fighting in Syria this year than in previous years.

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