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Putin considers options as Israel and Iran face off in Syria

Moscow intends to preserve its standing and military gains in Syria as the confrontation between Iran and Israel continues

The most active phase of Israeli strikes in Syria coincided with the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip to Russia on 9 May, where he joined President Vladimir Putin in commemorating Soviet soldiers who perished during the Second World War. 

While in Moscow, Netanyahu spoke with Putin about the Iran nuclear deal, freshly abandoned by the US, and the growing Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria.

Israel has thus far seen Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict as a positive, helping to contain Tehran's ambition to confront Israel. Russia and Israel set up a mechanism for their militaries to communicate and coordinate actions. This has been praised by both sides, with former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon recently saying it helped avoid unnecessary escalation after a Russian jet almost crossed into Golan Heights airspace in 2015.

Red lines violated

However, despite this ongoing coordination with Russia, Israel says that its red lines are being violated by Iran's growing foothold in southern Syria - something Moscow has been unable or unwilling to prevent. Russia's dependence on Tehran-led forces in Syria has emboldened Iran, creating an environment in which Moscow has trouble keeping it in line or guaranteeing Israel's security.

Russia has been under the spotlight in recent weeks, as the escalation between Israel and Iran on Syrian soil risks dragging Moscow into a new confrontation. So far, it has been unclear whose side Putin may take - but the Russian Defense Ministry called out Israel after its strikes against Iranian forces at the T4 base on 9 April, leading many to believe that Moscow is throwing its weight behind Iran.

Both Israel and Iran are trying to figure out how much of Iran in Syria is too much. Russia sees this as a readjustment of existing red lines and an introduction of a new mode of coexistence in Syria

In reality, Putin doesn't have any good options in this standoff. He will need to cushion the effects of the confrontation, which is unlikely to end, and make sure it doesn't spin out of control, erasing Russia's own gains in Syria. This will require a lot of back-and-forth with Israel and Iran, pulling off a balancing act to accommodate the fears and interests of both countries. 

Russia does not share the belief of Israel and the US that Iran's sheer presence in Syria is an existential threat to Israel. This position was laid out by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last year, when he said that Iran's presence in Syria was legitimate and came at the invitation of Damascus.

More importantly, he argued that the agreement on a de-escalation zone in southern Syria negotiated with the US and Jordan demanded the pullout of non-Syrian formations from the country, but did not mention Iran

Political rhetoric

Lavrov's comments essentially mean that for Russia, the full withdrawal of Iran from Syria is not on the cards - but this position also arguably led Israel to the realisation that it can no longer rely on Russia in containing Iran's expansion in Syria. Policymakers in Moscow see that Iran's political slogans, promising to destroy Israel, are largely aimed at the domestic public rather than indicative of a real policy course.

Similarly, Russia's defence ministry publicly displays maps showing the Golan Heights as part of Syria - but in reality, the country's air force would never cross into Golan Heights air space, de facto recognising it as part of Israel.

What this means is that Moscow ignores political rhetoric, always heated when it comes to Syria, but looks at actions when planning next steps. The recent actions of Israel and Iran indicate that neither country is looking to engage in an all-out war; rather, they are adjusting to each other in a new environment, where Damascus is no longer in survival mode and Iranian-backed forces are looking to cement their position in post-war Syria.

Russian soldiers march in front of a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a ceremony marking the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two in Aleppo, Syria, on 9 May 2018 (AFP)

Both Israel and Russia are trying to figure out how much of Iran in Syria is too much. Russia sees this as a readjustment of existing red lines and an introduction of a new mode of coexistence in Syria. The bottom line for Moscow is that the ongoing confrontation between Israel and Iran must not harm Russia's standing in Syria, nor undermine its military gains there. 

So far, Israel has treaded carefully when it comes to demonstrating its intentions to the Russians. Netanyahu has not crossed the one red line that would indicate to Putin that Israel's ambitions in Syria extend beyond containing Iran's expansion. Israel intentionally avoids targeting the Syrian government, while doubling down on Iranian assets in the country - a clear sign to the Russians that it is not pursuing regime change. Thus, the red line is not crossed. 

Israel, however, should not expect Russia to readily dislodge Iran from Syria. Abandoning an ally, even a questionable one, is not Putin's modus operandi and could come at a price. First, Moscow still largely depends on Iran's ground forces in Syria, and this fighting power could come in handy as the fate of Idlib - the largest de-escalation zone - remains unclear. Second, abandoning Iran in favour of Israel in Syria would ring alarm bells in Damascus and have President Bashar al-Assad wondering if a similar fate awaits him.

Reestablishing control

In the context of Russia's unstated competition with Tehran over influence in Damascus, a partial degrading of Iran’s capabilities in Syria is something that could work to Russia’s benefit, helping it keep Assad in its fold and consolidating his power autonomously from the Iranians. 

New red lines established by Israel in Syria are especially important ahead of a possible takeover of a rebel pocket in the south of Syria that borders the Golan Heights. Israel is not necessarily averse to the idea of the Syrian government reestablishing its control in the southern de-escalation zone - after all, prior to the war, the area had been peaceful for more than 40 years - but it will not tolerate Iran’s or Hezbollah’s role in this process. 

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Given recent air strikes against Iranian facilities in the south, Israel is attempting to reverse its enemy’s entrenchment north of its borders that could later expand into the de-escalation zone. This is also a challenge for Russia, since it will need to significantly prop up Assad if it wants Syrian forces to take over the area.

As long as the two continue to play a zero-sum game, pushing and pulling each other’s red lines without putting Russia in the crossfire, Moscow will be fine with it. Russia’s ability and appetite for establishing a new status quo in Syria by actively balancing out Iran and Israel remain in question. What Moscow can do is facilitate an asymmetric equilibrium, in which Iran's interests in post-war Syria are maximised in the non-military domain, while reserving the right for Israel to ensure its security by military means.

- Yury Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council covering the Middle East and North Africa, Moscow’s policy towards the region as well as the conflict in Syria.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 9, 2018 (AFP). 

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