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Middle East “neutrals” in Syria looking at Russia

As Syrian government troops launch offensive in the east of Aleppo, the alignment of forces and the interests of the conflicting sides have changed significantly. The exterior perimeter of the Syrian crisis has changed significantly as well.

Resistance of the Islamist fighters in the eastern quarters of Aleppo has not been quelled finally yet. The remaining Jihadists and “moderate” rebels are trying to stabilize the new front line concentrating most part of its forces in the southeast of the city. Meanwhile, all the external forces that previously either supported the militants in Aleppo or took a neutral stance on them now believe that they are doomed to failure. The first successes of the Syrian army and the allied pro-Iranian groups when storming the east of Aleppo made it clear that finally driving the militants out of the city may take a few weeks.

The situation in Aleppo has changed in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s troops that are supported by Iran on the land and by Russia in the air. It has become an important indicator for many countries in the region. First of all, it is evident in the camp of the conditional “neutrals” who tend to believe that it is too early to dismiss the “Syrian regime.” Some Middle East countries, specifically Egypt and Israel, had realized that fact yet long before the operation to liberate Aleppo.

Well-informed Middle East media, specifically Israeli ones, have been including Egypt into the list of al-Assad’s military partners with great tenacity. For instance, Israeli DEBKAfile website close to AMAN, Israel’s military intelligence, reported that Egyptian military are on a secret mission to Syria. The reports about it are contradictory, as several alleged formats of Egypt’s military presence in Syria are reported. Reportedly, an aerobatic team of Egyptian helicopter pilots has been deployed to Hama province (an estimated 18 pilots). Under simulated battlefield conditions, Egyptian pilots will be testing Russian Ka-52 (Alligator) attack helicopters. Moscow and Cairo signed a contract (at the stage of implementation) for delivery of these helicopters earlier this year.

A question arises as to why military pilots should test the Alligators to be delivered to Egypt in the war-ridden country. To that end, they could use the north of the Sinai Peninsula where the Egyptian army has to suppress the activity of the local Jihadists. Therefore, the reports on the helicopter testing in such high-risk conditions are doubtful.

The information on delivery of senior officers of Egypt’s Armed Forces to Damascus seems more likely. According to DEBKAfile’s data, a group of Egyptian generals headed a military delegation, which has set up a permanent mission in Damascus. (1)

Anyway, Cairo immediately denounced the “fictions” emerging in the Middle East media outlets. In a statement on Nov 27, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid said “such allegations only occur in the imagination of those who propagate them… Egypt is committed to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. There are constitutional and legal procedures that are taken before sending any Egyptian soldier or armored vehicle outside state borders…No military action would be taken in Syria or beyond without prior knowledge of the Egyptian people.”

Nevertheless, sources at the Russian military and diplomatic circles seized the “initiative” of their Israeli colleagues. For instance, on November 29, Russian Izvestia newspaper reported with a reference to its own sources that the reports on presence of the Egyptian military in Syria “correspond to reality, of course.” Anyway, Cairo’s interest to join the forces really fighting terrorists in the Middle East is growing as the Syrian army makes success. So far, this is only at the level of rhetoric. The reports about the Egyptian officers’ “trip to Syria” were anticipation of events rather than information on the real state of affairs. However, the role of the neutral side weighs heavily upon Egyptian military. Actually, the point of influence of the terrorists may shift to North Africa from Syria and Iraq. The Islamic militants that survived in Syria and Iraq may penetrate into Sinai. Then not only Egypt will face new challenges, but also the “near-front” Israel may be challenged with problems of quite different nature.

The intensified battles in Syria affect the eastern borders of Israel too. For the first time since the beginning of the armed conflict in Syria, the Israeli army deals with the aggression of the Daesh militants. Israel’s Defense Army liquidated a group of Islamic militants on the border with Syria on November 27. The destroyed Jihadists were members of Shuhada al-Yarmouk group that sworn allegiance to Daesh. The incident occurred in the area of the Golan Heights. Airstrikes targeted the militants that fired at Israeli soldiers from small arms.

Never before had Daesh attacked Israeli soldiers from Syria. Stray shells regularly fell on the territory of Israel and the Defense Army had to retaliate. The situation has changed making Israel respond with “asymmetrical” retaliation.

According to Israeli Armed Forces press office, 10 bombs weighting 1 ton each were released on Shuhada al-Yarmouk’s base in the south of Syria. Previously, the base belonged to the UN peacekeepers. Later terrorists turned it into a training camp and arms depot.

In his first speech after the Israeli army liquidated the group of ISIS fighters in the border zone, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel will not tolerate any provocations by extremists and will continue retaliating the terror attacks.

Israel still considers Hezbollah units in the west of Syria as the most dangerous potential source of military aggression. On the night to November 30, Israel’s armed forces launched preventive strikes on the bases of Syrian militaries near Damascus where, as they claim, a party of weapons intended for Hezbollah were dispatched. The priorities of Israel shift from the Lebanese Shiites to the Jihadists of Shuhada al-Yarmouk group that have intensified on the junction point of the Israeli, Syrian and Jordan’s border.

Not to let Islamic militants gain foothold near the eastern borders of Israel, Tel Aviv is ready to exert maximum effort, for instance, to return “blue berets” to the Golan Heights wherefrom they were once successfully evacuated. According to well-informed Israeli sources, Israel has launched “secret diplomacy.” Reportedly, a series of confidential meetings of representatives of Israel, Jordan and Syria were held last month and the restoration of the UN Mission in the Golan Heights was discussed. According to DEBKAfile, “those talks were taking place with the knowledge of the Trump transition team and the Kremlin.”

On the battlefield and the diplomatic field in Syria, the situation has changed significantly. The regional actors are geared to Russia’s policy in Syria. Whether it is a training trip of military pilots or visit of high-ranking officers of Egypt’s Armed Forces to Syria, confidential talks of Israel with Damascus and other secret activity of the key actors in the Middle East, they have to correlate their steps with the approaches and interests of Russia. With Donald Trump coming to power in U.S., Cairo and Tel-Aviv have comprehend the inevitability of close coordination of actions with Moscow, as much depends on it in the Middle East now.

(1) Egyptian pilots flying Russian choppers in Syria // DEBKAfile Exclusive Report, November 26, 2016.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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