They're Baaaaack -- Russian Forces return to the Middle East
In July 1970, Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-4 Phantom fighters took off for an apparent bombing mission near Suez City during the War of Attrition (the intermittent but occasionally fierce fighting that continued after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.) The mission was a ruse meant to draw out Russian pilots of the elite Soviet 135th Air Regiment, which had been deployed to Egypt along with Soviet-operated SAM batteries, both of which had increasingly threatened and harassed Israeli air missions. A Russian squadron took the bait and soon found itself in an unequal dogfight with some of the IAF’s top aces. When it was over, five Soviet MIG 21MF fighters had been destroyed and four pilots killed against no Israeli losses. The battle was but one incident in a long and successful struggle by Israel and the United States to eject the Russian military from the Middle East. But like so much else that has transpired under the Obama administration, that hard fought victory has now been trashed, with Russian forces returning the critical region via Syria, effectively invited by the administration’s weak, ineffectual, and confused Middle East policy.
That air victory forty-five years ago turned out to be a mixed blessing for Israel. While the IAF proved that it was not to be trifled with, taking on the Soviet Union raised the stakes of the attritional fighting around the Suez Canal to intolerable levels for all parties involved, including the United States. A cease-fire between Egypt and Israel was quickly declared, with assurances to the Israelis that Egyptian SAM missile batteries would be kept out of the Canal Zone. Like so many other promises that the Israelis received over the years (and would receive in the future) the Egyptian commitment proved empty. Not long after the agreement was concluded, Egypt pushed SAM batteries back to the canal, but American and Soviet pressure stayed Israel’s hand.
In 1972, tiring of the pushy Russians, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat kicked thousands of Soviet advisors and troops out of his country, but maintained friendly relations with the Kremlin, in order to ensure a steady supply of arms and ammunition for the war he and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad planned to launch the next year. That surprise attack against Israel, launched on Yom Kippur, very nearly undid the Jewish state. Contributing greatly to the Arabs' early successes were the Egyptian SAM batteries deployed in unprecedented density along the Suez Canal, which savaged the IAF it tried to interdict Egypt’s assault over the waterway.
In two weeks of intense fighting which cost Israel over 10,000 casualties (and the Arabs thrice that), the IDF turned the tables on Egypt and Syria. In the north the IDF crushed the Syrian Army’s advance into the Golan and drove to within artillery range of Damascus. In the south, the IDF stopped Egypt’s advance into Sinai, and split the Egyptian armies deployed there. Then the Israelis crossed the Suez Canal into Africa, drove on Cairo and cut off the southernmost Egyptian army in Sinai.
During the fighting, both the Soviets and the United States launched critical resupply efforts for their respective clients, as the ferocity of the combat (unprecedented since World War II) ate up men and machines at alarming rates. But when Israel gained the upper hand it was too much for the Soviets. This led to a crisis between the super-powers.
Unwilling to see their Egyptian and Syrian clients humiliated once again by Israel, the USSR threatened to intervene directly against the IDF unless it halted its advance. The Soviets mobilized airborne, naval and air units and started to move them. The United States responded by going to DEFCON 3, the same level of alert used during the 9/11 attacks. While of course the 9/11 attacks and the Cuban crisis (DEFCON 2) are well remembered, the 1973 crisis is oft forgot, yet the risks were the same (or nearly the same), and created by Russian military movement into the Middle East.
In the end, the IDF was compelled to halt its advance, and free the trapped Egyptian Army. But via skillful diplomacy and power politics, President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger managed to forge a ceasefire between the Egypt and Israel, which ultimately resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted to this day. Egypt (the most populous and important Arab country) became a U.S. client and the Soviets were finally completely kicked out and humiliated.
In Syria, American diplomacy and Israeli power also resulted in a firm Golan ceasefire which remained intact until very recently. When in the 1980s Syria (with Soviet backing) started meddling in Lebanon, the Israelis trounced them. Using new American aircraft (F-15 and F-16) the IAF wiped out the latest Soviet-made SAM systems and drove the Soviet equipped Syrian air force from the skies (shooting down 102 aircraft for no Israeli losses.) It was the first extensive use of these new American aircraft, demonstrating just how far the Soviets had fallen behind in the arms race and how vulnerable they had become. In no small part, along with the losing war in Afghanistan, and their inability to respond to President Reagan’s robust arms buildup, these events in the Middle East helped spell the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
This history is not lost on Vladimir Putin, who lived through these events, undoubtedly ruing Russia’s almost complete rout at the hands of America and Israel. Now thanks to President Obama’s feckless leadership, the anarchic situation in Syria, and the Iranian nuclear deal, Putin sees an opportunity to reclaim Russia’s position, and is neither wasting time, nor unwilling to take risks. In recent weeks, Putin has boldly moved Russian air, naval, marine, and SAM units into Syria. In response, the Obama administration, as is typical, done nothing but mumble about it courtesy of Secretary of State Kerry. Putin undoubtedly figures that so long as Obama remains president, he will have a free hand in Syria, especially now (thanks to the nuclear agreement) he has Iranian power and influence at his disposal.
And so now Israel finds itself in a situation not too dissimilar to the one it faced in July 1970. The Russian S-300 missiles and MIG 31s which are moving into Syria threaten the IAF’s freedom of action there, where it has intervened occasionally to limit the movement of weaponry to Hizb'allah and to keep the Golan front quiet. No doubt the IAF could shoot the Russian MIG 31s out of the sky as easily as it did Soviet MIG 21s four decades ago, but the costs of such a move, then as now, are unpredictable. Whether and how Israel handles the Russian MIGs may well define how Russia’s reentry to the Middle East goes. One thing Israel cannot count on, with Obama in office, is that the U.S. will have its back.