Last week, while the Ukraine crisis was at its peak, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu took the time to visit Damascus. He observed a Russian naval exercise on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, surveyed advanced fighter jets stationed for the first time on Syrian soil and met with the Russians’ protégé in the capital, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
This Syria visit was not aimed at easing concerns in the West; the Russian military does not need its defense minister to invade Ukraine. After all, he is an official who came up in the Russian bureaucratic system without any military background.
Nevertheless, his Syria visit is not being held in a vacuum. It serves to show that Russia does not view the current situation as a crisis point in Moscow-Kyiv ties, but rather as a larger confrontation with the West that stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Red Sea, if not far beyond.
Israel now finds itself trying to have it both ways; on one hand, declaring its commitment to its ally, the United States, while taking care not to offend Moscow or Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other. No wonder officials in Jerusalem fear the repercussions of the Ukraine crisis on the Middle East.
Over the last decade, Syria has become the Russians’ principal area of operations, and, just like with Ukraine, has been used to prove Russia is once again a world power able to promote its interests, despite opposition from the West, and mark achievement in the global chess game.
Thus far, Israel has succeeded in containing the inherent stress in Russia’s Syria presence and the need to act inside that country’s territory to keep Iran out. It has done all this with Russia’s occasional tacit approval.
The Ukraine crisis has focused the world’s—first and foremost Russia’s—attention on Eastern Europe. Yet Russia is large enough to act on additional fronts.
Both a victorious and defeated Russia or, at the very least, a Russia that does not feel it has emerged from the crisis with the upper hand, could be tempted to try and maximize its achievements and expand its influence. Alternatively, Moscow could look for compensation in our neck of the woods.
Israel is not necessarily in the Kremlin’s crosshairs. The Turks and the Americans, who are establishing their own military presence on Syrian soil, and who are in a constant state of friction with Russia, are higher up on the hit list.
Still, Moscow is now liable to demand that Israel halt operations in Syria that harm Assad’s regime. Given the crisis in ties with Washington, Russia could furthermore increase cooperation with China and, more importantly, Iran.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the saying goes. This will be of significant importance on the eve of the expected signing of the new nuclear deal with Tehran and given Iranian aggression aimed at establishing itself throughout the entire Middle East.
Israel is not a party to the crisis in Eastern Europe. It does not have the ability to influence the crisis or its outcome.
It must stick to a cautious and balanced policy, while making sure to protect its security interests. In doing so, we must hope that the Jewish state will be spared the dubious pleasure of paying for a crisis that has nothing to do with it.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.