Russia, Israel and Iran: Syrian conflict creates adverse strategic triangle

 

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org

Russia’s unprecedented move last week of dispatching warplanes to bomb targets in Syria through an Iranian airbase may have Israeli officials worried.

A Russian plane conducting an airstrike in Syria. Credit: The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation via Wikimedia Commons.

The move shows growing cooperation between Russia and Iran, Israel’s biggest foe in the Middle East in recent years, and a regime that, like Russia, has been working to maintain the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On Aug. 22, Russian and Iranian officials announced that Russia’s use of the Iranian base has ended. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, told the Tasnim news agency that Russia’s operation from the Iranian base "is finished for now." However, although Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed this, it also stressed that if Iran agrees, Russia could use the base again "depending on the situation" in Syria.

Although Russia announced the withdrawal of its forces from Syria back on March 14, the Kremlin has continued its activity on the ground, Vera Michlin-Shapir, a Neubauer research associate at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told JNS.org.

Russia dispatched its long-range warplanes to bomb targets in Syria through an Iranian airbase near Hamadan, located about 175 miles southwest of Tehran. Hamadan is also home to the ancient Tomb of Esther and Mordechai, a major pilgrimage site for Iranian Jews. Significantly, this is the first time the Islamic Republic has allowed another nation to conduct a military operation from inside its borders since the 1979 revolution. The planes dropped bombs on the Syrian provinces of Deir al-Zour, Idlib and Aleppo. 

Russia “kept its support from the air to the [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] Assad coalition throughout the past few months,” Michlin-Shapir said. “It’s not surprising that Russia still helps Assad in Aleppo, although Russia’s recent operations from Iran are a novelty in this campaign and probably meant to antagonize the U.S.”

As JNS.org reported in March, Russia has long been an ally of the Syrian government dating back to the Cold War. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin entered the Syrian civil war in the fall of 2015, claiming it would be attacking terror groups like the Islamic State. But reports indicated Russian forces were largely targeting Syrian rebel groups battling the Syrian government. 

Then, in March, Putin made a surprise announcement that he would withdraw the main part of his forces from Syria, though allowing some to remain at Russia’s naval base in Tartus and its Hmeimim airbase near Latakia.

The withdrawal announcement was simply a façade and geared towards Russia’s domestic audience, said Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Putin has purposefully presented the Syria campaign as very clean, virtually casualty-free, and limited,” Borshchevskaya told JNS.org. “After his announcement of his so-called withdrawal, Syria virtually disappeared from the news in Russia, but its operations continued, and reports showed that more Russian weaponry was coming into Syria.”

Also, the launch of the Russian bomber planes from Hamadan was not surprising.

“Putin appears to be building a bloc to confront the West in the Middle East, and though he says he wants to be friends with everyone in the region, in practice, his policy has more of a pro-Shia tilt,” Borshchevskaya said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a visit to the Republic of Azerbaijan on August 8, 2016. Credit: The Kremlin.

 

Putin also wants to reduce Western influence in the Middle East by stopping what he sees as a Western tendency to orchestrate regime changes through “color revolutions, Arab Spring protests, and by supporting protests against Putin inside Russia. From his perspective, he is being pre-emptive. And he wants to appear most of all as a great world leader,” she added.

When it comes to Russia’s apparent growing closeness to Iran, the two nations seem to have a common interest in disrupting U.S. influence in the Middle East. Russia may also hope to take advantage of economic opportunities in Iran, now that sanctions from the nuclear deal have been lifted. Both Russia and Iran have large reserves of gas and may also be interested in a partnership on that front. There are, however, key differences. Experts warn that such rapprochement may wane. Borshchevskaya expressed concern that in the long term, it’s unclear how well Russia can continue to balance the Sunni-Shia Muslim alliances in the region. 

Experts also agree that while Russia and Iran are both interested in keeping Assad in power, their reasons are different. Iran wants to keep the Assad regime because it allows it to send the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah arms and ammunition. Russia wants to maintain its economic and security interests in the region, especially by maintaining its bases in Syria.

“While Moscow is looking for a secular regime, Tehran is looking for a religious regime, or at least a regime which supports the Shiite aspirations of Iran,” Ofer Israeli, an international security policy and Middle East expert at the National Security Studies Center (NSSC) of the University of Haifa, told JNS.org.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on June 7, 2016. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash 90.

Meanwhile, Israel has stayed out of the Syrian conflict, except by providing medical and humanitarian treatment for civil war wounded Syrians, who are able to escape and cross the border into Israel. In July, Israel’s government also authorized the delivery of humanitarian aid into Syrian territory near its border.

Yet Israel and Syria are enemy nations, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) keeps a close eye on Israel’s border with the country. The IDF has also targeted military targets within Syria relating to Hezbollah, which is also fighting with Assad in Syria and is supported by Iran. From a strategic standpoint, the Israeli government may fear that Russia’s intervention in Syria, and now the apparent collaboration with Iran on this front, could strengthen both Hezbollah and Iran’s influence in the region. 

Despite such concerns, however, Russia and Israel have been developing their own strategic cooperation in the region. In June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin in Moscow, where the two discussed issues such as the fight against global terror, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Syrian civil war.

Russia’s interest in Israel has a lot to do with the more than one million Russian speakers living in Israel, as well as the two countries sharing strong economic ties, Borshchevskaya said.

“Putin also inserted himself in the [Middle East] Quartet in an effort to present himself as an impartial peacemaker, though in practice he tends to take a more pro-Palestinian position,” she said. “Most of all, Putin wants to appear important and to stick a finger in the eye of the West. He will probably work to reassure the Israelis that this incident won’t damage Russia’s relations with Israel, but it will certainly raise many questions in Jerusalem.”

Yet, in the wake of reports that Russian jets have fired at Israeli jets patrolling the Syria-Israel border, Israel and Russia have also been increasingly collaborating to prevent either country from inadvertent attacks. 

Although Israel and Russia have established a successful dialogue to avoid unnecessary clashes in Syria, “one should not expect that this would fundamentally change Russia's policies in the Middle East,” the INSS’s Michlin-Shapir warned.

“Israel is looking for a coordination with Russia for keeping safe its pilots while they are flying near Russian fighters in Syria,” Israeli of the NSSC told JNS.org. “More than that, Jerusalem is also looking for more collaboration with Moscow in any future settlement in Syria, with or without Assad.”

Israel’s foreign ministry spokesperson, when contacted by JNS.org, declined to comment on the implications for Israeli interests in the region or for Israel’s relationship with Russia.

Israeli, of the NSSC, believes that the departure of Russian bomber planes from the Iranian does not have direct influence on the relationship between Israel and Russia in the short term. “In the long run however, [this incident] may tighten Russia-Iran relationship and that may damage Israel,” he said.

For now, because Israel, as other Western allies, perceive a Western retreat from the region, it simply has fewer options, other than expanding a strategic relationship with Russia, Borshchevskaya said.

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Posted on August 22, 2016 and filed under Analysis, Israel, World.