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CWA # 30, 26 June 2018

Middle East
Middle East: Has Russia chosen Israel over Iran?

  Lakshmi. V. Menon

The Russia-Israel coordination has been mutually profitable. The growing bilateral coordination and Putin’s silence on Israeli attacks and raids in Syria are being referred to as unforeseen efforts on both sides

Research Scholar, Department of International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai

The Sukhois’ landing in Syria caused agonized and vexed Israeli security experts to envisage Israel’s freedom of operation in Syria to be in jeopardy. Much to their surprise, an Israeli official in Moscow said: “You’ll see. Putin respects Israel’s military force. And Putin and Netanyahu understand each other. They will find a way to get along.”

Today, three questions must be considered: will the tougher Israeli posture in Syria test the Russia-Iran alliance? Has Vladimir Putin chosen Netanyahu over Tehran? Did the Russo-Israeli coordination commence a new chapter of regional instability in the conflict-prone region? 

The looming regional instability in undoubtedly a global worry. 

While most scholars strongly countered the idea of Russian-Israeli coordination, the fact that Putin and Netanyahu were on the same page in Syria is gaining momentum. A match made in heaven – it seems like the newlyweds are keen to make things work. There is no role for ideologies or Putin’s brand of philo-semitism. Pure realist tendencies have drawn the powers together. Both realize and value each other’s strengths, supremacies and skills in the region. Some political scientists had earlier proposed the possibility of a Russo – Israeli conflict in the region. Clearly, that is out of the question as they have chosen cooperation over conflict. No signs of wanting to take on the other have been displayed.

Russia-Syria-Israel-Iran: The New Alignments
Moscow and Tehran wanted to ensure the survival of Assad’s regime in Syria. Putin to safeguard his domestic popularity was keen on avoiding Russian combatant deaths in Syria. Tehran saw Syria as an integral part of its influence in the region and hence was glad to help by sending their proxy Lebanese militia Hezbollah and paid Afghan refugees.

With Bashar Assad’s emergence as a winner in the war, the non-sentimental Putin had little need for Iran on the ground and realized that Israel was the only power in the region which could topple Russia’s interests if it chose to do so. Meanwhile, with the disinterest in Obama’s government to act on the chemical weapons used by Assad, Netanyahu fathomed that to safeguard its national interests Israel had to align with the new power in the region – Moscow, as Putin had embedded himself into the vacuum created by the US.

It is undisputed that Russia will not leave Syria or its sought-after Mediterranean warm-water ports. Nor will Iran break ties with Assad particularly post Trump’s exit from the JCPOA. Russia, understanding Tehran’s weakness, decided to fine tune with Israel.
Ground rules for the newlyweds

A closer inspection on Israeli attacks in Syria brings to light the ignored narrow classification of the former’s choice of targets. Israel’s targets were convoys and advanced missile depots that they believed would be eyed by the Iranian backed ground forces or Hezbollah in the future to threaten them.

To the fascination of many, Israel’s bombarding of Iranian operated Russian S-300s was received by an unoffended, quietly confident Putin. Israel’s attacks only saw occasional unclear, bland diplomatic protests and statements from Moscow. It was clear from the beginning that ground rules in Syria were agreed upon by Putin and Netanyahu. There was enough to infer that they had shaken hands over the game-plan.

The deal was simple. As long as Netanyahu did nothing to risk Russia's crusade to save Assad’s regime, Russia granted Israel complete freedom of operation even on targets under Russian air-defence umbrella. Moscow had made her choice.
Confirmation that Israel and Russia were never on inverse sides was Jerusalem staying out of the battle for power in Damascus.

Syria and Russia: Is Iran losing?
This coordination may be a game-changer for several reasons. Firstly, in the background of US’s withdrawal from the n-deal which has crippled Iran’s economy, being compelled to leave Syria is a huge setback for Iran’s stature. It would further affect plans for supply to their priority client – Hezbollah.

Secondly, Israeli interest in preventing the permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Throughout Russia’s presence in Syria, Netanyahu and his ministers have tried to convince Putin that allowing Iran to make Syria a client state (like Lebanon) is against Russian interests. Following a visit to Moscow, Avigdor Lieberman (Israeli defence minister) tweeted: “The state of Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security concerns, particularly regarding the situation at our northern border.” Thus, Netanyahu got Putin to do what Obama and Trump didn’t – challenge Iranian forces in Syria.

When Vladimir Putin celebrated Victory Day with Netanyahu while the Israel Air Force was annihilating Iranian targets in Syria, it raised eyebrows worldwide. Furthermore, Moscow later retracted its threat to sell or deploy S-300 surface to air anti-aircraft missile in Syria. The Russian President had chosen to leave Syrian and Iranian forces defenceless against Israeli attacks. 

Following the retraction, a base deep in Syria was bombarded by Israel. Moscow even abstained from condemning the May 10 exchange of strikes by Iran and Israel which saw major Iranian infrastructure in Syria being crushed by Israel.
Since the Russia-Syria-Iran alliance, Damascus via Moscow has been trying to restore the 1974 ceasefire line in the Golan Heights by giving Israel necessary guarantees. But Israel’s demand continues to be for a complete Iranian withdrawal from Syria, taking advantage of the fracture in the Iranian-Russian alliance and hoping for additional movement restrictions on Tehran in Syria. The recent withdrawal of Hezbollah and other Tehran-backed militias in Syria from the area was in direct response to Israel-Russia negotiations. The militants were asked to maintain a distance of 40km from the border with Israel, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
Previously Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) had called for the immediate evacuation of Daraa province, that borders Israel, by all foreign powers (referring to Tehran and allied militias). It seems as though Israel would not be content unless Iran entirely leaves Syria. The strengthening of the Russia-Israel dialogue is contributing to materializing Israel’s wish.

Russia: The Changing motives
The diplomatic efforts have given way to a new Russian policy towards Israeli airstrikes in Syria. At this point, it is important to scrutinize the motives of Russia and Israel. Netanyahu values the dependable channel of communication with Syria and Iran. It also draws economic benefits from trade ties with Moscow, which in turn allows greater freedom to exercise independent foreign policy, enabling the country to attack Iran with impunity.

For the US, however, this is not a happy story as it is proof that its hold in the Middle East is gradually crumbling. The current regional arrangement will only strengthen the coordination, which will negatively affect the US. If Iran resorts to terrorism for revenge, the implications may be beyond prediction and sinister. 

For the Russian elite, Israel is a short-cut to Washington and respects its military-economic technological dexterity. Also, the flourishing trade and investment relations with Israel have been adding to the Russian economy.
Though Putin is willing to use anti-Semitism domestically, personally he seems to be positive towards Israel as is reflected in the Russian policy which shuns the anti-Semitism. There is a tendency to use ‘diaspora’ sentiments in a sense of “our people” with reference to the Russian emigration of the 1980s to Israel, as and when it fits the picture. 

It is understood that wars against Israel always end badly for the opponent and pulls the US into the region. The US in Middle-East is the last thing Putin wants. It is further crucial for Moscow’s Middle Eastern policy to maintain a positive dialogue with Israel.
Israel refrained from sanctions and selling weapons to Ukraine post-2014. This has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. Israel’s respect for Russian red lines and sensitivity to Russian interests have pleased Putin as has the manner in which Israel informs Moscow before taking any step that may be provocative to Russia.

The Russia-Israel coordination has been mutually profitable. When Israel obtained a channel to talk to Russia and warn Iran against the larger anti-Israeli campaign, Moscow was awarded a more autonomy in Syria. 

Today, the growing bilateral coordination and Putin’s silence on Israeli attacks and raids in Syria are being referred to as unforeseen efforts on both sides. However, the game was clear when Netanyahu visited Moscow a week after the first Russian aircraft landed in the Khmeimim airbase in Syria. In other words, when he rushed to make the deal.

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