(June 12, 2018 / JNS) The tensions between Russia and Iran over Syria have intensified of late, and it appears that the interests of Russia, the United States and Israel are coalescing around limiting both Iran’s and Hezbollah’s role in Syria. But the question is: How far is Russian President Vladimir Putin willing to go?
Israel, which has become increasingly alarmed at Iran’s presence north of its border and its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah’s military buildup in Syria, has urged Russia to force Iran out of the region.
“The State of Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security needs, especially on our northern border,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu during a visit to Moscow on May 31 to discuss the situation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month that only Syrian troops should be stationed near the Golan Heights. “It should only be the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic that stand on the Syrian border with Israel,” he said.
Zvi Magen, a senior fellow with the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies, and a former Israeli ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, told JNS in an interview that three main issues center on Russia’s role in Syria.
First is the narrative that relations between Russia and Iran are not good because they have different interests.
“During the civil war, they were on the same side backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, but now that the war is ending, they are pushing different agendas. Iran and Russia each want to control Syria themselves,” said Magen.
The second narrative is that Russia has an interest in cooperating with the United States in Syria, but a lack of communication exists on both sides.
“The U.S. is not showing an interest in speaking to the Russians, and Moscow may be interested in making some kind of deal whereby they trade their interests in Syria for a Western comprise over its role in Eastern Europe,” explained Magen.
“Third, there is the problem of Israel since it can spoil things. If there would be a war between Israel and Iran in Syria, it would be bad for Russia, and so they are searching for some kind of solution, part of which was its deal with Israel that pushes the Iranians out of southern Syria.”
Magen added that “the Russia-Israel understanding actually seems part of the Russia-U.S. deal, while opposing Iran is the price.”
Moscow’s goals in Syria remain unclear
On Sunday, Assad shot down reports that Russia was dictating his decisions, playing down tensions between Russia and Iran.
“They [the Russians] never, during our relation, try to dictate, even if there are differences,” he said, according to SANA’s transcript of the interview, given in English.
“It’s natural to have differences between the different parties, whether within our government or other governments; Russia-Syria, Syria-Iran, Iran-Russia, and within these governments, that’s very natural, but at the end the only decision about what’s going on in Syria and what’s going to happen, it’s a Syrian decision,” said Assad, according to Reuters.
Magen went on to explain that it appears that the Russia, Israel and America are aligned in wanting the Iranians out of Syria. However, he noted, Russia will have a difficult time getting the Iranians to agree to leave Syria since they are already deeply embedded in the country.
Anna Geifman, a Russia expert, professor emerita at Boston University and currently a research associate in the political-studies department at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said Moscow’s goals in Syria remain unclear, but perhaps the Russians would like to weaken Iran in Syria, especially now that America has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal.
“Russia sees an opportunity to retain Syria as its ‘colony,’ exclusively,” she said.
‘They will not be able to evict us’
In an article earlier this year for the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, Geifman noted that Putin had declared a withdrawal of military forces from Syria, but asserted that he was likely to leave substantial amount of forces in the country. This move helped gain popularity for Putin at home; he won a landslide victory in his re-election in March.
Yuri Teper, a Russia expert and a founding member of the Israeli Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies told JNS, “It is clear that Russia and Iran don’t see eye to eye. Russia’s pragmatic goals differ from those of Iran, which are more ideological in seeking regional dominance and hostility to Israel.”
However, the situation remains blurry, as Russia had called for non-Syrian forces to vacate southern Syria. Then, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah ruled out leaving Syria because the regime wanted it there.
“I will tell you that if the whole world comes together to force us to leave Syria, they will not be able to evict us,” said Nasrallah, according to Reuters.
Teper perceives the Russians as appreciating Israel’s determined efforts to attack Syria, but avoid unnecessary confrontations with Assad’s forces.
“At this time, Russia is primarily concerned with expanding Assad’s control over Syrian territory and working to find a way for American forces to withdraw,” said Teper.
As for the reported deal to remove Iranian or Hezbollah forces from Israel’s border area, he asserted that they could very well try to maintain a covert presence.
In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported on this possibility, stating that, according to Syrian rebel sources, Hezbollah terrorists and other pro-Iranian militants are fighting alongside Syrian soldiers near the Israeli border disguised in Syrian army uniforms.