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Conflicting interests in Syria create a dangerous complexity for Russia and Israel

Can Israel and Russia work together to find a peaceful and common solution to the situation in Syria? Two experts weigh in for JNS.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow in late January. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow in late January. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.

At the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the situation in Syria and said that “Mr. [Bashar] Assad understands that if he invites Iran in, then obviously, he is challenging us to a different position than the one we’ve had.”

What Netanyahu didn’t say is that Russia is the real puppeteer in Syria, and the decision over whether or not Iran establishes a military presence there is solely up to Russia.

Zvi Magen, former Israeli ambassador to Russia and currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS that “Russia doesn’t like the Iranian view. This is a fight for an empire.”

In Syria, numerous parallel and conflicting interests exist. Russia, Iran and various pro-Iranian forces fight side by side with the Syrian government against opposition elements, even though “Iran wants Syria for itself, and the Russians want to push the Iranians out,” explained Magen.

With regard to Israel, Magen pointed out that “Russia and Israel are not friends. There are interests. Russia is dealing with Israel because it is afraid Israel can spoil every Russian move in the area if Israel isn’t satisfied with the results. If Russia wants to make changes, it needs to consult with Israel. Russia has a number of interests, one of which is to keep Israel’s border friendly and quiet. It wants to keep the relationship with Israel warm.”

“Russia will generally want to stay in Syria, but they want to exit the war,” said Magen.

In a possible sign of cracks emerging between Russia and Iran, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did admonish Iran for calls by its leaders to destroy Israel, a rare rebuke of its ally in Syria.

“We have stated many times that we won’t accept the statements that Israel, as a Zionist state, should be destroyed and wiped off the map. I believe this is an absolutely wrong way to advance one’s own interests,” Lavrov said at a conference in Moscow, TASS state news agency reported.

However, it is unclear how far the Russians are willing to go in challenging Iran’s presence in Syria, as Lavrov added that “by the same token, we oppose attempts to view any regional problem through the prism of fighting Iran.”

Last month’s conference on Syria, hosted by Russia in Sochi and the purpose of which was to call for the lifting of unilateral sanctions and reconstruction of Syria, didn’t seem to produce much in the way of progress. “The main point,” Magen said, “is that no foreign forces will stay in Syria, and this is a major blow to Iran.”

So what is Russia doing in the Middle East?

According to Shaul Shay, director of Research at the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, “we have to take into consideration that throughout its history, Russia considered the eastern part of the Mediterranean an area of strategic importance due to geopolitical limits in terms of port access.”

“It’s not new,” he added. “Throughout history, we can see Russian attempts to gain control in the region. For example, during the Cold War era, most of the eastern Mediterranean was under Soviet control.”

Shay continued, saying “this is the Russian comeback. The key area for them, and quite successfully, is to save the Assad regime, which was considered a precondition to maintain Russian influence in Syria. Today, we view Russia as a key player in the region. The future of Syria will be influenced more by Russia than any other party. According to the contract signed with the Assad regime, Russia will maintain a presence for a while. Israel needs to take into account that Russia is here to stay, politically and militarily.”

One of the ways Russia is trying to gain influence in the Middle East is by using arms sales as their main platform. According to Shay, “they tried to return to old traditional markets, such as Egypt, Algeria and Sudan, but they also tried to penetrate Western markets, such as Saudi Arabia or the Emirates—countries which for years have been dependent on U.S. or British arms. Why are arms sales so important? Because it is a ‘long’ contract. It creates a kind of dependence: spare parts, training, upgrades and maintenance; it’s a classical way to try to gain influence in countries. Russia is the second largest arms supplier in world after the U.S.”

The second platform Russia is using to gain influence is nuclear technology to build civilian reactors for energy. “This is not the stronger part of Russian influence,” acknowledged Shay.

“In the short term,” Shay reiterated, “this alliance between Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia has common interests, which is to save the Assad regime and to defeat the threats to the regime, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.”

Now, all parties in Syria are looking at the day after. “Sooner or later, we can assume there will be some kind of agreement in Syria,” said Shay. “In the long term, it may not be the case that Russian and Iranian interests are similar. After the war, Russia may not be interested in an Iranian presence in Syria since Russia’s intent is to create stability in Syria. However, the time will come to rebuild Syria, and Iran will want to invest in [its] reconstruction.”

Both Shay and Magen agree that Russia and Israel operate based on interests—and their interests are not the same.

“Israel has no choice but to take into consideration that the Russians are there,” said Shay. “And it is necessary to prevent any clashes between Russian forces and the [Israel Defense Forces]. The coordination is working—so far. On the other hand, we need to take into consideration that Russia’s presence creates a strategic limitation to Israeli actions in Syria and Lebanon. Israel has to find a way to maneuver between its interests and red lines, and do it in a way that does not bring us into conflict with the Russians. This is the Israeli policy.”

And Israel will continue to work to prevent an Iranian presence in Syria.

As Netanyahu emphasized at the Munich conference: “Nip bad things in the bud; stop them before they get big. That’s basically what our policy is.”

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