While a lot has very recently happened in Syria between Israel and Iran—and such episodes may recur in the future as well—Russia’s role, as we wrote previously for NEO, remains crucial as the only feasible mediator between the two fierce rivals and could be the key to de-escalation. Russia’s mediatory role notwithstanding, the crisis in itself is a major diplomatic challenge for Russia, one that needs to be very skillfully handled so that Syria doesn’t turn into yet another battle ground and so that the gains Russia itself has made against extremism aren’t compromised. The task, therefore, is as tricky and dicey as it is enigmatic. This is evident from the way Israel’s prime minister, following his latest visit to Moscow and after Israel had shot Iranian targets in Syria, meant to say that Russia was on their side of the war against Iran. Iran, on other hand, continues to see Russia as an ally and its officials were in Russia only two days ago to salvage the Iran-nuke deal after Trump’s announcement of exit. Hence, the question: what is really happening between Israel and Russia regarding both Iran and Syria?
While Netanyahu’s post-visit statements suggest a shift in Russian thinking towards the role Iran can and should play in Russia, this is far from the case. Russia isn’t switching sides as the conflict in Syria is still far from over. Syrian’s stabilization remains an enigma to resolve and Iran remains a key element of peace and a guarantor of cease-fire as well. Israel, therefore, seems to be under-estimating Iran’s importance for Russia and vice versa.
The fact that Russia didn’t object to or criticize Israeli strike on Syria, targeting Iranian elements, doesn’t simply make it a ‘friend’ of Israel and an ‘enemy’ of Iran. There is a lot more to the situation than meets the eye. For Russia, the main objective remains Syria’s stability and unity as one territorial unit as opposed to its division into “zones”, and its re-construction. Russia’s meaningful silence on Israeli strike shows, therefore, how Russia, being a friend of both Iran and Israel, doesn’t want to get un-necessarily entangled in the Iran-Israel brawl and that it intends to play its role in a way that doesn’t make it a enemy or rival of any of the two states (Iran and Israel).
This is how the Russians seem to be doing this: while Russia refrained from criticizing Israel for the attack, its Defence Ministry didn’t fail to mention that the Russian supplied Syrian air defence system was able to shoot down about half of the 60 missiles fired by Israeli forces, signifying that Russia remained sensitive enough to Syria’s defence. Already, Russia has stated that should an emergency situation arise, it will be able to buttress Syrian defence system with S-300 missiles and launch pads.
Similarly, while Israel expects from Russia to limit Iran’s role in Syria, particularly close to the Israeli territory, Russia understands the chemistry between Iran and Syria. In fact, Russia shares with Iran the very reasons and logic of their military presence in Syria as both of the countries have been invited by Damascus itself and have been crucial in the fight against the Islamic States and other foreign funded “rebels.” Therefore, while Russia may have no interest in Iran’s “resistance front” against Israel, it doesn’t object to an Iranian presence in Syria either, and neither does it consider, unlike Israel, Hezbollah a “terrorist” organization. On the contrary, the result of recent elections in Lebanon have only proved that Hezbollah is much more than a simple militant outfit and that it has a strong popular base and a sound electoral support, giving it social and political legitimacy and reinforcing the Russian view that Hezbollah isn’t a terror outfit and shouldn’t be treated as such.
From this logically follows another difference between Israel and Russia and a convergence of interest between Russia and Iran: the Iran-nuke deal, known as JCPOA. As such, while Israel was jubilant over the US exit from the deal, Russia did not refrain from calling it a “new confirmation of Washington’s intractability”, adding that “Russia is open to further cooperation with the other JCPOA participants and will continue to actively develop bilateral collaboration and political dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Therefore, notwithstanding the warmth that Netanyahu received in Moscow during his latest visit, it cannot be gainsaid that Russia might be thinking of potentially side-lining Iranian interests in Syria to accommodate Israel. On the other hand, the fact that Russia hosted Netanyahu and after that an Iranian delegation proves that Russian diplomacy is in to-gear as its role as the only ‘go-to’ party for back-channel diplomacy continues to become self-evident to both Iran and Israel.
It is, therefore, misleading to conclude, as has been widely done in the international media, that there is an unofficial agreement between Russia and Israel, according to which Russia has allowed Israel to attack Iranian targets as long as the attacks are retaliatory and don’t hurt Syrian and Russian interests.
What is more likely and serves Russian interests better is that Russia is simply balancing itself between Iran and Israel, and understands that allowing any of these parties a free-hand would only lead to a war that they might not be able to control.
Therefore, notwithstanding the impression that Netanyahu was successful in creating, it remains unrealistic to expect that Russia would decided to choose parties between Israel and Iran or will unconditionally subscribe to the Israeli agenda of vanquishing Iran from Syria or an Iranian agenda of expanding its front against Israel.
What, however, Israel can expect is Russian efforts to prevent the use of Syrian territory against Israel and vice versa. There are, as such, no deals, but only the wide spread recognition of the fact that anything that happens in Syria between any party needs to factor in the Russians and their interests.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.