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Does Russia care about stopping Israel-Iran escalation?

Moscow is seen by many observers as the key to defusing the situation between Israel and Iran, as it enjoys relations with both countries and is the major military power on the ground in Syria. However, it may be out for its own interests.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin seen during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, on May 9, 2018. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin seen during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, on May 9, 2018. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.

The situation in Syria saw a massive escalation on Thursday with Israel carrying out its largest airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian military targets in the country since the civil war began in 2011. Israel’s response came after Iran launched an estimated 20 missiles and rockets at Israeli targets near the Syrian border on Wednesday night, most of which were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system.

Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad—and a brutal regime that has devastated the country and its people—notably urged restraint on all sides to prevent further escalation.

“We have established contacts with all parties, and we call for restraint from all parties,” said Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, reported the Tass Russian news agency. “It’s very worrying and a source of concern. We have to work to ease the tension.”

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Jonathan Cornicus later confirmed that Israel had notified Russia of its airstrikes ahead of time.

With the latest escalation, Russia is seen by many observers as the key to possibly defusing the situation between Israel and Iran, as it enjoys warm relations with both countries and is the major military power on the ground in Syria. Yet despite Russia’s statements, it remains unclear whether or not it is in Moscow’s interests to defuse the situation, or allow Israel and Iran to battle it out further.

Anna Borschchevskaya, an expert on Russian policy towards the Middle East for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS that Putin does not “really have an interest, nor ability, to restrain Iran.”

“Right now, Russia’s and Iran’s goals in Syria are not identical, but they also don’t clash, and what Russia cares the most about is someone impeding on their interests. Iran is not doing that right now,” she said.

However, with the Syrian government and its allies continuing to gain victories over the rebels, who have now been reduced to largely the northern Idlib province and other smaller areas, it may appear to Russia that Iran’s help in aiding the Syrian regime to defeat the rebels has outlived its usefulness.

As such, with Israel reportedly eliminating most of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria in the airstrikes on Thursday, this could further strengthen Russia’s concerns as it eliminates a potential future competitor in Syria.

“It would also be to some extent helpful to the Kremlin if Iran is weakened because this would mean it will limit Iran’s ability to compete with Russia in the Middle East in the future,” said Borschchevskaya.

Netanyahu in Russia meeting with Putin

Despite their differences, both Israel and Russia have enjoyed cordial relations in recent years, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making frequent visits to Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin keen on highlighting Russia’s role in defeating Nazism and its vast Jewish history. Along those lines, there are more synagogues in Moscow than ever before, with brand-new ones built in the Marina Roscha neighborhood and a fourth yeshivah in the area, reopening after more than 80 years, in the Moscow suburb of Malakhovka.

Israel has also gone out of its way to remain neutral on Russia amid growing Western concerns over its actions in recent years. Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was born in Moldova—part of the Soviet Union at the time—noted in a Russian-newspaper interview that Israel has not joined in Western sanctions against Russia stemming from its Crimea invasion or the poisoning of the Russian spy in the United Kingdom.

“We take Russia’s interests into account, and we hope that Russia will take into account our interests here in the Middle East,” said Lieberman. “We expect Russia’s understanding and support when it comes to our vital interests.”

At the same time, since entering the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russia has generally turned a blind eye to Israel’s airstrikes against Iran and its Lebanese terror proxy, Hezbollah. Israel and Russia also set up a mechanism in order to avoid direct conflict over their competing interests in Syria.

This warm relationship was on display again on Wednesday, with Netanyahu traveling to Moscow to meet with Putin as part of “Victory Day” celebrations marking the 73rd anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

At the start his meeting with Putin, Netanyahu remarked on the commemoration of the Soviet Union’s victory against Nazi Germany and compared the threat that Israel faces from Iran today.

“It is unbelievable, but 73 years after the Holocaust, there is a country in the Middle East—Iran—that is calling for the destruction of another 6 million Jews,” stated Netanyahu.

“The difference is that today, we have a state, and I very much appreciate the opportunity to discuss regional problems with you, the attempts as you put it, to resolve the crises, to lift the threats in a prudent and responsible manner,” he said.

After the talks with Putin, Netanyahu indicated that Russia will likely not impede Israel’s actions in Syria.

“In previous meetings, given statements that were putatively attributed to, or were made by, the Russian side, it was meant to have limited our freedom of action or harm other interests and that didn’t happen, and I have no basis to think that this time will be different,” he told reporters.

As such, Borschchevskaya said Russia wants to continue to appear as the major power in Syria, and let Israel and Iran sort their situation out.

“Russia wants to appear important and to appear as a neutral peacemaker. The Kremlin doesn’t want a direct conflict between Iran and Israel, but if it were to happen, they have an interest in playing both sides,” she said.

In the end, she believes that Moscow will likely fall back on its policy of playing both sides against each other in order to strengthen its own Middle East interests.

Russia, she affirmed, “will officially say they’re neutral, but in reality, they will play both sides. This could potentially allow Russia frankly to come out as the winner, if both sides are weakened as the result of a conflict, and this is also a typical Kremlin playbook—play everyone else off against the other so that you come out on top.”

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