(March 17, 2016 / JNS) On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise announcement that he would withdraw the “main part” of Russian forces from Syria, shocking many of the countries concerned about the ongoing conflict in the country, including Israel. Putin’s move came as peace talks began between the Syrian government and opposition and rebel groups in Geneva, Switzerland, following a cease-fire in Syria that was announced in late February by Russia and the United States.
“I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled. With the participation of the Russian military…the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects,” Putin reportedly told his government ministers.
A long-time ally of the Syrian government dating back to the Cold War, Russia entered the Syrian civil war last fall on the pretense that it would be attacking Islamic extremist groups like Islamic State. But over time, reports indicated that Russian forces were largely targeting Syrian rebel groups that were battling the Syrian government. Bolstered by Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was able to reverse significant loses and even begin to regain territory, especially near Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
Despite this week’s drawdown announcement, Putin said that Russian forces would remain at Russia’s naval base in Tartus and its Hmeimim airbase in Syria, a claim that has also led to questions about the extent of Russia’s actual withdrawal from the country. Many nations and leaders are left wondering about the future direction of the five-year-old Syrian civil war, as well as Putin’s goals and motivations regarding the embattled country.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said at a Knesset hearing on March 15 that Israel “had no prior information about the Russian announcement of a reduction in its involvement, just as others didn’t.”
Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank and an expert on Russia, told JNS.org that “Putin likes to test himself in the role of a great leader and peacemaker. This situation allows him to look like a peacemaker. Somebody who carries out a limited military campaign and sees it through.”
Israel was initially troubled by Russia’s intervention in Syria last fall in support of Assad, a longtime enemy of the Jewish state. Additionally, Israel is concerned that by bolstering Assad, Russia would also allow Iran and its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah, whose forces are also fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, to be strengthened as well. Despite these concerns, Israel and Russia quickly established an operating mechanism for cooperation in Syria that would prevent each side from accidentally attacking the other.
Following the announcement by Putin, Russian Ambassador to Israel Alexey Drobinin attempted to assuage fears in Israel that a Russian pullout would lead to further instability.
“We will try to ensure that this [Syria] crisis is resolved, and we will also do everything so that Israel’s national security interests are not harmed in the process,” Drobinin told Yedioth Ahronoth.
In separate remarks to Israeli Army Radio, Drobinin said Russia will remain mindful of Israel’s concerns.
“Israel is a neighboring country. It cannot be indifferent to what is happening in Syria. We take this into account, of course,” he said. “We have an ongoing dialogue with the Israeli side on all levels—the military level and diplomatic level.”
On March 16, in a previously scheduled visit that became more timely due to the drawdown, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin.
“There is a need for coordination with Russia regarding the current situation,” Rivlin told reporters while in transit to Moscow. “Everyone understands that Islamic State is a danger to the entire world, but the Shi’ite fundamentalist Islam of Iran is for us no less a threat.”
The Washington Institute’s Borshchevskaya believes that Russia’s drawdown in Syria will give Putin an advantage in the peace talks, in which he can try to “push for his own agenda.”
“His own agenda is securing Russia’s interest. But Russia’s interest is as he defines it, which is not necessarily good for Russia in the long term, it’s what’s good for Putin. But he is assured that he has leverage in this process,” she said.
“Assad was losing ground until the intervention and now he is not. Putin helped him secure ground, that is tangible success that he [Putin] can claim,” she added.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, echoed that view, telling JNS.org that Russia’s involvement in Syria is a power play to increase its international stature and protect its interests.
“One of Russia’s reasons was to regain a foothold in the Middle East as a power broker,” Ottolenghi said. “And to preserve and control its access to the Mediterranean at its naval base in Tartus.”
Otherwise, he said, “Russia’s navy would be at Turkey’s whim to allow its access through the Bosphorus” strait.
Yet for Israel, Russia’s siding with Syria—and thereby with its supporters, Iran and Hezbollah—presents a complex challenge for the Jewish state’s relations with Moscow.
Ottolenghi said that unlike Israel, Russia doesn’t view the radical Shi’a Islam promoted by Iran and Hezbollah as a major threat.
“Overall, the Russians don’t view Shi’a Islam, even in its radical form, so much as a threat to them. Most of their problems, especially the homegrown ones, are [from] Sunni Salafi extremists,” Ottolenghi said.
“While I don’t think they see it as a problem, they also don’t care that much. If the Israelis bomb Hezbollah, I don’t think Russia is going to lift a finger to prevent that,” he added.
During his meeting with Putin this week, Rivlin reportedly told Putin that Israel was interested in restoring a United Nations peacekeeping force on the Israel-Syria border, and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was concerned about Iran and Hezbollah establishing a foothold in that region.
“Russia’s interests in Syria are clear to us,” an anonymous Israeli official told Haaretz. “President Putin spoke of his wishes and plans clearly, and president Rivlin will pass them on to the prime minister.”
Putin also told Rivlin that he plans to meet with Netanyahu soon to discuss the security situation in the region.
Putin said that Russia and Israel “have a large number of questions to discuss linked with the development of bilateral trade and economic relations and questions of the region’s security,” the Russian news agency TASS reported.
“I hope that we’ll be able to discuss them in the short run with the Israeli prime minister,” he said.
Borshchevskaya noted that Putin “has been quite successful in improving relations with Israel since he came to power,” but that the Russian leader is “not going to sacrifice Russia’s interest for Israel’s sake.”
“Ultimately,” she said, “Putin only cares about himself. He won’t genuinely take Israel’s security concerns into account.”