Earlier this week, the Russian army sent warplanes, including nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 bombers and MiG-31 fighter jets, armed with advanced hypersonic missiles, to Syria for the largest Russian naval drill in the Mediterranean Sea since the Cold War. 

The purpose of the large-scale Russian military exercise is to showcase Moscow’s military capabilities compared to American-led forces in the region. The Russian Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile is potentially a game-changing weapon that reportedly moves 10 times the speed of sound and has a range of 2,000 kilometers. 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Syria to oversee the massive Russian military drill that includes around 30 warplanes and 15 warships. The purpose of the military exercise was reportedly to “protect national interests” and “fend off military threats against the Russian Federation” amid tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine. 

Russia formally entered the Syrian civil war in 2015 with the goal of saving President Bashar Assad’s regime from collapsing. While the government has been stabilized, Moscow is in no hurry to leave Syria. The Russian naval base in western Syria gives Moscow direct access to the Mediterranean Sea bypassing the need for Turkish approval to move Russian warships from the Black Sea via the Bosporus. 

During his visit to Syria, Shoigu inspected the Russian Hmeimim Air Base and met with Assad. The Russian defense chief and Assad reportedly discussed “military-technical cooperation as part of the joint fight” against what Russia and Syria define as “international terrorism,” which includes opposition to Assad’s oppressive regime. 

On the agenda was also Moscow’s humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population, which was described as “suffering from the prohibitive sanctions of the United States and Western countries.” 

Jerusalem maintains complex but stable relations with Moscow and has developed a deescalating mechanism between Russian and Israeli military operations in Syria. Russia has largely accepted Israel’s argument that it needs to combat Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. However, Moscow recently expressed “deep concern” over the Jewish state’s aerial strikes against Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria. 

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova used unusually harsh language to criticize Israel’s military operations in Syria. 

 “Israel’s continuing strikes against targets inside Syria cause deep concern. They are a crude violation of Syria’s sovereignty and may trigger a sharp escalation of tensions. Also, such actions pose serious risks to international passenger flights,” Zakharova stated, according to the Russian TASS news agency.

While Russia has increased its military presence in the Middle East, Washington is gradually withdrawing from the turbulent region and keeping its military presence to a bare minimum. Given America’s limited manpower in the Middle East, the U.S. Navy is reportedly considering integrating Israeli-made unmanned vessels into its military operations infrastructure in the region, according to Reuters. The advanced Israeli surface drones can be used as a complement to aerial and underwater UAVs. 

“The Israelis are definitely vested in leveraging this technology,” an unnamed U.S. official told Reuters. 

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Bahrain, which houses the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The historic American-brokered Arab-Israeli Abraham Accords have rapidly increased the Jewish state’s integration in the Middle East. 

In 2021, Washington formally included Israel as part of its U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East region. Due to Israel’s previous political isolation in the Middle East, the Jewish state used to be part of the U.S. European Command. However, in the rapidly changing Middle East, Israel is becoming a key regional military player with increased cooperation with friendly Arab states such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. 

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