HAIFA, Israel – Russia continues to send mixed signals over its stance in support of the Syrian regime of embattled President Assad. The abstention of Russia, (and of China for that matter), in Thursday’s UN vote condemning Syria, Iran and North Korea for widespread and systematic human rights abuses, is juxtaposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments earlier in the day that, “We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what's going on there.”
Putin, a senior KGB figure prior to his dominance of Russian politics over the last 12 years, knows better than most just how to play both sides of the same game. Unconfirmed reports suggesting that Moscow may have sent some 24 Iskander cruise missiles to bolster Syrian forces have seemingly prompted neighboring countries such as Israel, Turkey and Jordan, (whose respective militaries have for some time been on a heightened state of alert due to the instability in Syria), to further increase their vigilance and monitoring of events in the region.
On December 9, first reports hinted that a batch of the Iskander missiles – also known as SS26-Stone missiles –might have been dispatched from Russia to Syria. Now the suggestion in some quarters is that the weapons may have arrived at dual destination points; 12 facing Turkey on Syria’s north-east border, and 12 facing Jordan and Israel on Syria’s southern border. Speculation is rife that the weapons could have entered the country via the port of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Russia’s only naval base in the region.
What is certain is that a number of other vessels are reportedly on their way to Tartus. Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that, “They (the Russian vessels) are heading to the Syrian coast to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens. Preparations for the deployment were carried out in a hurry and were heavily classified.”
Other reports from the region have suggested however that the ships bound for Tartus are not the type normally used for evacuation purposes and include two amphibious assault vessels. And on Wednesday evening, in what may be a related move, Vice Admiral Hossein Azad of the Iranian navy told local media that a Russian naval vessel had arrived at the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
“Marshal Shaposhnikov, a Russian Udaloy-class destroyer, has docked at this port with the aim of strengthening military ties between Iran and Russia”, the Vice Admiral said. Both Iran and Russia have been principal supporters of President Assad’s embattled regime.
Were the Iskander missiles to have entered the mire of the awful Syrian war in which, at the very least, 40,000 lives (many of them innocent civilians) have already been lost and hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee to refugee camps outside the country, it would potentially take the conflict to a new and even more dangerous level. The weapons have a range of up to 280 miles, can carry a massive warhead weighing up to half a ton, and are able to fly at a speed of up to 1.3 miles per second, making interception particularly difficult. There has for some time been serious concern amongst Syria’s neighbors that Assad may choose to attempt to drag the whole region into the mire of the brutal Syrian civil war, if and when he feels his own battle is lost.
When combined with growing fears that Iranian-backed Syria and its allied militia Hezbollah, (in southern Lebanon) – who on Thursday officially confirmed to the UN they are fighting alongside Assad’s troops in Syria - may be preparing to use chemical weapons against internal Syrian opposition or against an external enemy such as Israel, the stakes in this deadly game of brinkmanship continue to be raised.
There is no doubt that the ongoing search for Assad’s stockpile of chemicals has been the central focal point of the attentions of various foreign agencies including the CIA, Mossad, and other western security services since the summer, all desperate to ensure that such weapons of mass destruction don’t fall into the hands of either Hezbollah, Iran, or the plethora of Islamist jihadi groups who have formed the disparate opposition to Assad.
Earlier this week both Israel and Jordan have moved to prepare for the possibility of a spread of the Syrian conflict. Maj. Gen Amir Eshel of the Israeli Air Force told reporters that Hezbollah already has a range of unmanned drones at their disposal, (similar to the one that successfully crossed into Israeli territory in October).
Earlier this week a massive explosion in southern Lebanon rocked a suspected Hezbollah storage depot. Eshol observed, “It is no secret that Hezbollah is preparing weapon stockpiles in Lebanon, contradicting UN resolutions. Those who sleep with rockets and amass large stockpiles of weapons...are in a very unsafe place.”
Eshol gave no details of any action under consideration at the present time, but added, “This is a matter for the country’s decision-makers”, whilst an Israel Defense Force spokesperson was equally tight-lipped in telling FoxNews.com, “The IDF is prepared for any eventuality. Beyond that we’re not prepared to comment.”
On Wednesday, the Jordanian military is understood to have issued personnel with gas masks. Jordan has taken in a large number of Syrian refugees and hosts US troops on its soil, together with troops from both Poland and the Czech Republic. US Ambassador to Jordan, Stuart Jones, on Wednesday reiterated his country’s position, saying “The US will stand by Jordan in light of the large inflow of Syrian refugees.” Denying that US troops are in place on the actual Jordanian-Syrian border, Jones added “US troops are in Jordan for training purposes only.”
Turkey has also granted safe haven to many fleeing Syrian refugees. The spark that ignited the perceived escalation of weaponry was NATO’s decision to grant Turkey’s request for Patriot missiles to be stationed on its eastern border following the killing of a number of its civilians as a result of Syrian cross-border shelling. Turkey argued that the Patriot missiles were needed to protect against any further attacks on its soil by Syria, the country that only three years ago had declared Turkey and Iran as its new best friends and formed a three-cornered alliance.
The Patriots, together with their 400 US troops who now operate the system on the Turkey-Syria border, also appear to be taken by Russia as a threat to its interests in the region, adding further fuel to rumors that Moscow might have introduced new armaments into the conflict as a counter-measure to the NATO deployment.
The US State Department, when asked by FoxNews.com for comment on the developments, would say no more than, “We have been clear on how Russia can play a more constructive role in this conflict”, while on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking of the general situation on the Turkey-Syria border, told the BBC, “Potentially there is a missile threat, and it is because of that threat that we have deployed these (Patriot) missiles. The deployment is of a purely defensive nature to protect Turkish territory.”
In short, the situation on the ground in Syria is increasingly tense, developing into a stand-off in which two of the world’s major military powers support opposite sides of the internal Syrian conflict and have opposing interests and views of the Middle East conflict as a whole.
All of this against the background of the unknown location of deadly chemical weapons, the presence of a variety of high-powered missiles, and the dangerous territorial aspirations of a variety of jihadist groups eager to strike a blow at the Syrian regime, the State of Israel, and at Muslim states in the region whose brand of Islam runs contrary to their more radical beliefs.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who blogs at www.paulalster.com and can be followed on Twitter @paulalster