The Syrian Chessboard: Behind the Game Played by Russia, Israel, the U.S. and Other Powers

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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during an interview with journalists from Argentina in Damascus, on May 18, 2013.
SANA / Handout / Reuters

Syria's President Bashar Assad during an interview with journalists from Argentina in Damascus on May 18, 2013

The umbrella group representing Syria’s rebellion on the world stage announced on Thursday that they would not attend peace talks proposed to take place in Geneva during June, a flat rejection that might appear to sideline the role of diplomacy in the civil war. But diplomacy is running full bore in the Syrian conflict, and even as horrors multiply on the battlefield, a good portion of the war is also being carried out in words. The best evidence might be the statements that overshadowed the rebels’ declaration in the same news cycle: President Bashar Assad hinted in a television interview that Russia has already delivered some components of an antiaircraft battery known as S-300.

Assad’s remarks amounted to what was originally dubbed CNN diplomacy, the use of satellite television to deliver a message. The term is no longer in use, in part because it has become the norm and in part because there are so many alternatives to CNN. In this case, the medium was a significant part of the message: the embattled Syrian President spoke with al-Manar, the satellite channel run by Hizballah, the Lebanon-based militia Syria supports alongside the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose Press TV propaganda arm elucidated some of the finer points of the sit-down. Military commanders like to quote Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the extension of politics by other means. But you never hear diplomats reference Mary Poppins on the relevant criteria for the perfect nanny: “Play games. All sorts.” Consider some of the diplomatic games engendered by the Syrian conflict:

(MORE: Arming Syria’s Rebellion: How Libyan Weapons and Know-How Reach Anti-Assad Fighters)

Sabre Rattling
The S-300 is an impressive threat to enemy warplanes. When Russia made a deal to sell the system to Iran, the Pentagon was so unsettled by its implications for U.S. airpower that Washington pressured Moscow for years to renege on the deal, which it finally did in 2010, under cover of international sanctions aimed at Tehran’s nuclear program. Russia’s promise to deliver the same system to Syria means almost nothing in terms of the conduct of the civil war itself: the rebels have no planes.

But Israel does, and if the S-300s are delivered, “We will know what to do,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon said this week. The implication was clear, given Israel’s recent track record: three times in the past four months, Israeli F-16s have struck inside Syria, taking out precisely the kind of advanced weapons systems that the S-300 is counted among. These attacks were meant to be discreet and aimed only at preventing the transfer of those weapons to Hizballah, a formidable proxy military force Iran helped form to battle Israel. Publicly and reportedly through back channels as well, the Israelis emphasize that their quarrel is not with Assad, whose demise many inside Israel see as a positive development (because it would also greatly degrade Hizballah, and by extension Iran, both of which sent fighters to help Assad). A second school of thought in Israel values Assad as “the devil we know,” a largely predictable and risk-averse enemy who now could be supplanted by a coterie of jihadist rebels, some of whom are formally allied with al-Qaeda.

“Israel did not intend to interfere, and these alleged strikes had very little to do with the rebellion that’s taking place in Syria,” says Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank heavily staffed by retirees from Israel’s security services. “Israel is not intervening in favor of one side or the other.”

(VIDEO: The YouTube War: Online Videos Spread Fear in Syria)

That’s the strong official line. After Ya’alon’s veiled threat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered government officials to keep mum about Syria. By then, his air-force commander, Major General Amir Eshel, had already warned in an open forum that, should Assad fall, Israel is poised to mount massive operations aimed at immediately destroying the chemical, biological and advanced weapons systems held by Syria’s military. The alternative — the weapons disappearing into the stateless world of al-Qaeda and other terrorist configurations — more than justifies the risk Israel would undertake in involving itself in the fighting, Eshel said. “We may find ourselves having to take action, on a very broad scale, within a very short period of time.”

Facebook Diplomacy
Netanyahu made the same point on the premier social-media site in March, by way of justifying his government’s decision to patch up relations with Turkey: “It’s important that Turkey and Israel, which both share a border with Syria, are able to communicate with each other and this is also relevant to other regional challenges … Syria is crumbling, and its massive stockpiles of advanced weapons are starting to fall into the hands of various elements. What we fear most is that terrorist groups will get their hands on chemical weapons.”

(MORE: What Should Social-Media Sites Do About Syria’s Savage War Videos?)

Preventive Diplomacy
The most concrete evidence that Israel wants to stay out of Syria’s civil war is its repeated glossing of incidents on that shared border, which still exists as a military front from wars decades past. One day late last month, an Israeli foot patrol from the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion entered no-man’s land between the two fronts, was spotted by Syrian regulars and found themselves pinned down as the Syrians walked mortar fire toward them. Then, before other Israeli forces could rescue them, Syrian soldiers were spotted heading their way on foot, a sight that prompted Israeli commanders to launch fire that destroyed the Syrian position. Like an earlier episode when an Israeli Defense Force jeep took fire from the Syrian side, Israeli officials blandly suggested the problem might have been “stray fire.”

Gunboat Diplomacy
A dozen Russian warships moved into Syrian waters near the base at Tartous, where Syria and Russia operate a joint naval base, Russia’s only warm-water facility. In a throwback to the Cold War, the deployment signaled solidarity with Assad and an implicit warning to those powers — the U.S., the E.U., Turkey and other Sunni states aligned with the rebels, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Qatar — that Moscow will defend its stake it has maintained over generations in Syria, its one Middle East interest.

The vessels would not be expected to figure in the fighting — though they presumably carry intelligence-gathering capabilities. Their presence is chiefly symbolic. And actually, so is the flap over the S-300, according to Shapir, the Israeli defense analyst. The system, while formidable, is so complex that it could not be assembled inside of six months. Then there’s the challenge of training Syrians to use it.

(MORE: The Shadow War Behind Syria’s Rebellion: Foreign Backers Jockey for Influence in Turkey)

As an alternative, Russia could send its own operators, an option that Israel would find far less threatening. “By the way,” Shapir says, “it would be seen by the Russians as a counterbalance to six [NATO] Patriot batteries now in Turkey, on the Syrian border. Operated by the Americans, Germans and Dutch. And of course if Russia sends in Russian units with Russian soldiers, Israel would not attack.”

In any event, the latest word out of Russia is that the S-300s will not be delivered to Syria for another year, at least. So what was all the fuss about? “The announcement about the transfer, I think, is a Russian game, “ Shapir says. “It’s a Russian game meant to make clear to the whole world that they have a  strong interest in Syria, and they should not be ignored.”

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

MORE: Syria’s Rebels Aren’t Winning the War: Anatomy of a Battle


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Karl, who are you kidding?your article is heavily biased towards Israel. Instead of condemning her illegal acts of aggression against a sovereign country, the way you have included them in your post amounts to endorsing them, and by doing this you have thrown the reputation of this international periodical in a ditch. I fail to understand how your piece passed through the stringent editorial scrutiny the Time is famous for. Or is it now the mew editorial policy??


Sergey LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister: «As regards the content of the new stage in humankind’s development, there are two basic approaches to it among countries. The first one holds that the world must gradually become a Greater West through the adoption of Western values. It is a kind of “the end of history.” The other approach – advocated by Russia – holds that competition is becoming truly global and acquiring a civilizational dimension; that is, the subject of competition now includes values and development models.» "Enshrined in the UN Charter the principle of unanimity among the five permanent members of the Security Council in fact meant capturing the CONCEPT(!) of a multipolar world. The cold war brought it to bipolarity. Now everything is back in place."


Russia has veto power in the UN, as a country that defeated in World War II.

V. Putin "the U.S. of being interested in relations with Moscow because Russia was the only country that could destroy the U.S. in half an hour or less."

Our nuclear triad is a weapon of deterrence.

The times of the cold war are gone. The principles of mutual destruction in international relations are unacceptable. So let's tune in to a constructive dialogue based on the rule of international law, the UN Charter, the principle of indivisibility of security, of the sovereign equality.

 Russia is prepared to assume its share of responsibility for the current global state of affairs. We have no great-power ambitions, nor do we suffer from inferiority complex. We are committed to finding solutions to existing problems based on the rule of international law, balance of interests, and common sense. To this end, we actively participate in various collective mechanisms for managing international relations at the global and regional levels, including, first of all, the UN, but also G8, G20, CIS, SCO, BRICS and others. This network diplomacy reflects the emergence of a new polycentric(!) world order which would be more equitable, democratic and sustainable.


OMG. Don't forget the U.S didn't start this war. Did the U.S  send is mass weapons to arm the rebels, that started to get sick of Syria gov? did they force them 2?

They choose to fight for them self's, and take AL SADD on.

Iran is a different story.  We must do anything to stop them radical people from getting nuclear bombs. Everyone knows they are 100% trying to get them.

But the west should be trying to make as many democracy's as they can.

The west should not of stopped Russia in 1990 to give a different enemy communist "china", a massive market to build up attack / weapons to come on par with tec and take the no 1 spot i the world market in 10 years. That is a WTF moment.

As we seen the peace that was when Russia collapsed . The west has peace, not on edge nuclear war or war every day.

We stopped Russia to get the lead, and stop people that mass murder there own / thugs in gov, that say kill anyone so easy. 

We did not cut off Russia for bush to almost F that up, by giving Putin a market, before Putin f that up. we did not get ride of Russia to let a evil communist take there spot and Americas no 1 spot to become a supper power no 1.

China kills there own people / makes them disappear, never to be seen again, over someone righting a book. 

It takes a sick bunch of people to murder someones dad taking him away from there kids, Or to punish the family of 1 guy that talked out. They the Communist GOV get the police / spy's to stalk his family and kill them, or lock them up. These are people we would not let run for GOV, or any department in the west. They are coldblooded murders that are in jails over here. AU / EU / UK. half U.S lol. 

They are communist thugs that murder people, and we want to let them take top spot and get on par with weapons. WTF

People really don't think, and it looks like we are so thick that after 20 years of peace & no real threat, we have forgotten why we made a "communist" Russia collapse, & why we did.

So we are going to trust the words of people that run there gov that are the same as murders and gangs in jails in the west? That even after we know they are murdering there own people and monks, have been busted lying about building up. we are going to let them get the no 1 market, & hack us / up build up bigger then us over 50 years or way less "hacking tec"..

so we are going to let them lie to us, build up, when they give orders to murder innocent people because they are 100% the same as murders in jails and criminal thugs.

So criminal murders that should be in jail, keep saying trust us, we don't want war "LMAO", but said they would never build up 100 times over 100 weapons, but did lying to us each time, then did what they said they would never do.

Yea there people that murder and give orders to murder innocent civilians that would not hurt a fly people. YEA LETS TRUST THEM EVEN WE WE KNOW WE CAN NOT. YEP LETS GIVE THEM MURDERS A MARKET AND LET THEM BUILD UP, NOTHINGS GOING TO HAPPEN.


Lavrov: Waiting for Information from Turkey about Syrian Gunmen Caught with Sarin

Jun 01, 2013

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his country is waiting for Turkey to provide clarification about arresting Jabhat al-Nusra-linked Syrian gunmen with sarin gas in their possession in the Turkish territories.

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow Friday, Lavrov expressed Russia's disappointment that the UN did not quickly respond to the demand of an investigation into the incident of chemical weapons use in Khan al-Assal area near Aleppo.

"We feel great disappointment with the political games of the UN General Secretariat that it failed to respond to this demand with the possible accuracy and speed," said Lavrov.

"They instead presented conditions that are, according to us, illogical and outside the rules of dealing," he added.

"We have repeatedly and frequently warned that this issue could constitute different provocations, and therefore we insist on accurate search of any act involving chemical and toxic materials," Lavrov told the reporters, adding that Moscow has welcomed the Syrian government's demand of sending an expert group to investigate into the incident which took place near Aleppo city.

Lavrov pointed out that the Russian Foreign Ministry's yesterday statement commented on the issue of the Jabhat al-Nusra gunmen who are detained in Turkey, saying "We are waiting for the Turks to provide information on the results which they came out with quickly and in full." He stressed the need for a thorough investigation into such cases.

Earlier, the Russian Foreign Ministry called for accurate investigation regarding the disturbing news on seizing extremists carrying sarin gas in Turkey to ward off attempts by terrorists to use hazardous substances against civilians in Syria and to instigate an external interference.

"Moscow repeatedly drew attention to the very serious provocations by the terrorist and takfiri opposition groups regarding weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical weapons," Spokesman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, said in a statement Thursday.

He pointed out that these provocations aim "to open the door to armed foreign intervention in Syria, stressing that Russia sees its is totally impermissible to use chemical weapons.

"The news from Turkey unfortunately confirms that these warnings are not baseless," Lukashevich added, stressing the importance to conduct an investigation to "know all the details of what happened to ward off the terrorists' attempts to use chemical weapons against the civilians and instigate foreign intervention in Syria."

Lukashevich recalled that the Syrian government has repeatedly stressed that it will not use chemical weapons, if it possesses any, inside Syria.

The Turkish media reported earlier that the Turkish intelligence seized 12 persons from Jabhat al-Nusra with links to al-Qaeda in Adana city in southern Turkey and confiscated 2 kg of toxic sarin gas, ammunition, several documents and digital information were in their possession.


hey Karl, 

don't you think Tony Baloney Karon should have said good-bye before going to work for al jezerra ?

tony baloney karon working for al jazerra.....who would have guessed ???  


This game has been played before, Russia knows it, on the other hand, so does Israel!


The West will soon find out that they backed the wrong side in Syria. Assad, with all his faults, is preferable to the rag tag bunch of Islamists, waiting to enforce their brutal Sharia laws and anything else that can keep them in power. The Oil backers from Saudi arabia/Qatar and Turkey are falling into the trap of supporting fellow Sunnis, with the hope that their own regimes will be spared. But, this conflict will not end without playing itself out with new borders, where Shia/Sunni divides will become more entrenched. The Russians would love to return to the World stage through Syria, just in case we forget that they too were a World Power 20 years ago! Israel has very little to gain from support to either faction because they will have to deal with a mess, whichever side wins. Welcome to the return of conflicts where the West and Russia can sell more arms!


Hopefully,Russia will transfer the anti-aircraft S-300 missiles as soon as possible to allow Syria to defend itself against hot-headed bloodthirsty predators who threaten them . Syria is a secular country withwomen's rights and a democratic constitution and defined borders ( Israel has neither - it would complicate her illegal land grabs and settler expansion) , and a democratically elected parliament and Assad has called for national elections in 2014. We want to replace it with an Islamic govt and break it up into 3-4 smaller countries and we don't care how many Syrians we have to kill to achive it. Without our US/NATO backed terrorist war 80,000+ Syrians would be alive and 2mm more would not be homeless.

We supply Israel with both top-of-the- line defensive and offensive weaponry . How can we complain about a sovereign nation defending itself against US supplied weapons of mass destruction ??

The Al Queda led  terrorists/mercenaries and their splinter groups are already being supplied by US/NATO countries and their proxies - don't want to attend., don't want to negotiate, don't want an Assad led coalition govt, don't want elections for the Syrian people to decide their future. Russia calls for free elections we will not allow it.

Why do we insist on a ME reign of terror. Is it the new American way. Perhaps we have to learn from the Russians and believe in free elections again


How the hell does installing defensive, anti-aircraft batteries, with ZERO offensive capability outside Syria's sovereign domain, constitute "sabre rattling"?  All the sabre rattling is coming from the USA and Israel, not to mention the three actual, offensive air-strikes inside Syria by Israel, making the installation of SAM's a perfectly reasonable, defensive measure.

Why shouldn't Syria have the ability to defend its sovereign air space when faced with Israeli aggression the US enables?  Trying to spin this as 'evidence' Syria and Russia are the 'bad guys' adds more loops to the Gordian knot of idiocy created by the west and Israel's obvious involvement in the Syrian 'civil war'.  Given we now know the US has backed a 'rebel' force that includes al Qaeda, whatever that is, I do not trust a single word of coverage from western media, especially as it relates to the body count attributable to Assad.

As far as I'm concerned, anything that encourages Israel to respect the sovereignty of its neighbors is a good thing.  Bring in all the MiG-29, and SAM's they can!  With a neighbor like Israel, Syria obviously needs such a deterrent.


A chessgame, playing  with the initiation ofa worldwar,just to see Pres.Obama and the USA geting scared/nervious. Russia staging large war,that's why eg Mr Putin did not have the courage for 3 hrs to see Mr Kerry, that's also why Foreign Ministre  Marshal Sergiao had to say in an interview about AAA to Assad " I don't know,I am not in charge of shipment" ,he knew exactly what russian's war plan is and what volume of Armada makes its way to the middle east via Bosporus canal southbound  (see livecam on They lie to Assad, they lie via China to KIM JUNG-UN . That's why he was tricked to say march2013 he would launch nuclear attacks to USA and SK.- In Korea  and M.E. , it s the Russians/china  who stage (at least they want it to appear as....)a worldwar , using these5  frontmens: Amadinashad,KimJung-UN,Hizbollah,Taliban,Assad.Amadinashad  has trained his professionals in Russia long ago on Mig29 aircrafts , on S300 AAA , and all vehicles/guns  now on the way into staging areas, and also including US Arsenal sitting in Kuwait.They have a standfast plan to bring Obama to the breaking point like Kennedy was in 1960,or Nixon 1975.


In these conflicts, the first casualty is the truth. Somehow, the western media was able to create the false impression that Syrian government had used chemical weapons. In reality, it was the rebels who did it, as was confirmed by the UN last month. One of the rebel commander cut open a government trooper and bit into his heart, but you will not see this barbaric act, among others, on US TV. The only Syrian reporting done here is all about government atrocities.

Over the past 20 years, the quality of US media reporting has slowly but steadily declined. We are now at a point where important events routinely get ignored or even flat-out reversed whenever they do not suit the agenda of the editorial staff, which often represents a mixture of corporate and populist interests. This was a natural outgrowth of the lobbying and PR industries since the 1970s, and it has serious repercussions on the quality of national discourse and policy making. Readers beware.