By Yury Barmin
Israel has been an unofficial ally of Moscow since 1991, when diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel were restored, having been severed following the Six-Day War in 1967. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Russia was rapidly losing its political and economic clout in the rest of the Middle East region, while its relations with Israel improved.
The relations between the two countries have always taken the form of an informal alliance, as Israel has traditionally been regarded as a key partner in the region of the United States, and Washington has historically guaranteed Israel’s security. In the words of its minister of defence, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel and Russia have developed ‘special relations’ over the past few decades, despite the political pressure being exerted on Israel by the country’s allies. The deep historical ties between the countries serve as the basis for stabilising their relations and give them a less politicised character.
The traditional focus on solving the Palestinian problem, which is rapidly losing relevance in the Arab world amidst talk of the Iranian threat, has started to wane in Russia-Israel relations too, as a direct consequence of Moscow’s decision to pursue a more active policy in the Middle East. While Russia may have seen an opportunity to play a significant role in a Palestinian-Israeli resolution following the decision of the US president, Donald Trump, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Israeli leadership now sees the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear deal as the main issues on the bilateral agenda. It is these two events that have strengthened Iran’s position, thus becoming a catalyst for threats to Israel’s national security.
Against the backdrop of the escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran, Russia’s relations with Israel are being put to test over Syria. This was demonstrated by the 17 September incident in which Syria accidentally downed a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft during an attack by Israeli F-16 jets on targets in Syria. While certain analysts have started to assert that Russia has taken on the role of the USA as a guarantor of Israel’s security and survival in the Middle East, it is hardly likely that the country’s leadership sees it this way.This notwithstanding, Israel has made it clearthat it views Moscow, and not Washington, as the party that is capable of preventing the conflict with Tehran from turning into a full-scale war.
When the war in Syria broke out, active discussion within the Israeli establishment took place as to what position the country should take with regard to the conflict. The 2005 reference of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to Bashar al-Asad as ‘the devil we know’ when he warned George Bush against attempting to overthrow Asad, was no longer relevant in 2011. In Israel’s estimation, the Arab uprisings, which benefited Tehran in many ways, would, if successful in Syria, greatly reduce Iran’s influence in the region. This is why Israel took the firm stancethat Asad had to go, although this did not evolve into a campaign to support the Syrian opposition.
However, as Damascus grew weaker and the role of Iran in the military conflict increased, Israel’s position started to change. This was primarily due to the commencement of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria in the second half of 2015. Like the Sunni-majority countries in the region, Israel was counting on the Russian military presence to contain and control Asad and, more importantly, Iran. Thus, Israel expected the Syrian war to proceed in a more predictable manner, because neither the potential risk of radical forces coming to power in Syria nor the comprehensive victory of government forces, and therefore Iran, would be in Israel’s interests.
The principle of Israel’s non-involvement in the Syrian conflict, as well as its rejection of the possibility of replacing the Asad government that the country’s leadership has repeatedly stressed at meetings with their Russian counterparts, has in many respects served as a guarantee for Moscow that Israel was concerned exclusively about its own national security. In other words, the threat to Damascus is a ‘red line’ for Moscow, and Israel has thus far indicated that it does not intend to cross it.
Nevertheless, should Iran strengthen its political and military positions in Syria, at the same time that the government in Damascus is stabilising and restoring its control over the country’s territory, this would radically alter Israel’s deliberate distancing from participation in the military conflict. The situation in Syria changed drastically on 10 February 2018, when the Israeli Air Force incapacitated almost half of all Syrian missile defence systems in response to a violation of its airspace by an Iranian drone launched from Syria. During the attack, one of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets was shot down by the Syrian air defence system near Haifa. Given that the Syrian government is no longer in self-preservation mode, and the last opposition enclave in East Ghouta was swallowed up by the Syrian Army in April 2018 (a process that Moscow calls transforming the de-escalation zones ‘in line with peaceful settlement’), it was a matter of time before things started to heat up between Iran and Israel in the country’s southwest. The point here is that the southern de-escalation zone, like similar areas in Syria, turned out to be nothing more than a temporary measure to freeze the conflict. The issue of Golan Heights, whose border had been peaceful for decades, and where the Israeli and Syrian militaries have served under the supervision of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, is becoming both a subject of political dispute and a potential zone of military escalation.
Escalation on the border of the occupied Golan Heights could radically change Israel’s position with regard to the Syrian conflict. In negotiations with Russia, Israel insists on the Golan Heights issue being a ‘red line’ and that ‘with or without an agreement, Golan Heights will remain part of Israel’s sovereign territory’. Israel’s policy of distancing itself from the conflict in its neighbourhood had become noticeably less pronounced. The events in Syria’s south are starting to resemble the 1982 Lebanon War, at least in terms of the scale of Israel’s military operations against Syria. The involvement of the Syrian air defence systems that shot down the Israeli fighter jet on 10 February made Damascus a party to the conflict that is unfolding between Iran and Israel.
In conditions where Damascus is carrying out an offensive campaign near the borders with Israel together with pro-Iranian forces, as far as the Israeli’s military leaders (who are known for being uncompromising) are concerned, the line between the pro-Iranian forces and Damascus is being eroded. In other words, any provocation by Iran aimed at probing the ‘red lines’ set by Israel automatically implies the involvement of Damascus, which could dramatically change Israel’s position on the need to remove the Asad government.
In addition to eliminating the supposed danger, Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hizbullah positions in Syria have two additional goals: to demonstrate to Damascus that its alliance with Iran is dangerous for the survival of the Asad government, and to let Moscow know that, in pursuing its policy in the region, it is not in Russian long-term interests to rely on Shi'a militias. Moscow understands the risks associated with Damascus becoming directly involved in the confrontation between Iran and Israel. The influence of Iran, operationally and politically, on the Syrian government has made its armed forces dependent on Iranian support, and has made Russia dependent on pro-Iranian units when carrying out its operations. Thus, the issue of Iran is extremely threatening to relations between Russia and Israel.
Military cooperation between Russia, Iran and Hizbullah within the framework of the coordination centre in Baghdad cannot but alarm Israel. Thanks to joint military operations in Syria, where pro-Iranian units and the Syrian Army provide ground support and a Russian airborne tactical formation guards the skies, Moscow and Tehran have significantly deepened their military cooperation. Additionally, according to certain media reports, Iran could violate the UN embargo on the import of weapons by receiving certain types of Russian weapons through Syria and sending equipment to Russia for servicing.
Further, during joint military operations with Russia, Hizbullah significantly improved the quality of its combat training and tactical planning and obtained access to better intelligence following joint work of the military staff of the Russian Armed Forces and Hizbullah in Damascus and Latakia. Hizbullah has also mastered its offensive military tactics in Syria, which could have grave consequences for Israel, whose leadership seriously fears Hizbullah, which boasts some 10 000 fighters in Syria. Many in Israel are wondering when, rather than if, and under what circumstances, another war with Hizbullah might break out.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Israel’s stance on the danger posed by Iran and Hizbullah did not always resonate with the Kremlin. For example, days before Russia launched its military operation in Syria in September 2015, in a meeting with Netanyahu, Putin rejected the Israeli assertion that Iran was, in collaboration with the Syrian Army, attempting to create a ‘second terrorist front’ against Israel in the Golan, saying, ‘The Syrian Army, and Syria in general, is in such a state that it is not even entertaining thoughts about opening up a second front, as it is trying to save its own statehood.’ Nevertheless, Putin did acknowledge that rocket attacks had been launched against Israel. Several key Russian politicians expressed the same position, including the Russian minister of foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, and the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov.
Despite Russia’s clear position on Israel’s security and the role that Iran plays in it, Moscow has given Israel considerable operational freedom. Thus, Moscow refrained from criticising Israeli operationsto destroy convoys transporting weapons (often Russian) across Syrian territory for Hizbullah. That was until the second half of 2015, when Israeli air operations obstructed Russian air defence systems deployed in Syria. Former Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, also confirmed that, since an emergency channel of communication between the Hmeimim Air Base and the Kiriya Command Centre in Tel Aviv was set up in 2015, Israel has not had to inform Moscow about forthcoming operations, since Russia independently identified Israeli fighter jets and did not consider it necessary to interfere in their operations.
Despite Moscow’s operational dependence on pro-Iranian forces, and despite the strategic proximity of the positions of Russia and Israel on Syria, Russia is unlikely to back either Iran or Israel should an open confrontation break out between them. From a strategic point of view, there is no good option for Moscow in this conflict, other than to strive for balance and to position itself as a referee. Whatever position it takes, Russia’s balancing act between Iran and Israel will inevitably seem like crisis management, and the political dividends of this role will be minimal. One example of this type of crisis response was the telephone call from Putin to Netanyahu on 10 February 2018, which ended the spiralling escalation between Israel and Syria.
Moscow aims to maintain a balance in the Iran-Russia-Israel triangle. In this context, in 2017, Lavrov stated that Iranian units were in Syria legitimately, at the invitation of the Syrian government. In July 2018, he added that it was unrealistic to expect Iran to leave the country soon. At the same time, Lavrov criticised Tehran for calling for Israel’s destruction. Russia also maintains a balanced position on the issue of Golan Heights. All official statements and documents, includingthe Final Statement of the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue held in Sochi, as well as materials published by the Russian ministry of defence, recognise this region as a part of Syria.This notwithstanding, Russian fighter jets avoid violating the airspace of the Golan Heights, de factorecognising Israel’s sovereignty over the region.
Against the background of escalation in the south of Syria, Israeli media reported in late May that Russia and Israel had reached an agreement on Iran. According to the deal, Israel agreed to return the areas in the southern de-escalation zone that border Golan Heights and Jordan to the partial control of the Syrian Army. Russia, in turn, guaranteed that pro-Iranian Shi'a forces would not be present on the border with Israel, and undertook to withdraw foreign troops from the country. The degree to which the agreement will be implemented in its current form remains unclear. However, in late July, the Russian presidential special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Shi'a units and heavy equipment and weaponry had been withdrawn to 85km from the demarcation line with Israel (yet at the same time confirming that Iranian advisers were permitted to be present in the Syrian Army within this radius). It is not clear what Moscow’s position on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria actually is, as the statements of Russian officials often involve mutually exclusive solutions. For example, in November 2017, the minister of foreign affairs announced that Iran was in Syria legitimately at the request of the Syrian government and that Moscow had never promised to ensure the withdrawal of pro-Iranian troops from the country. Nevertheless, in May 2018, Lavrentiev said that the entire foreign contingent, including Hizbullah and Iranian forces, had to be withdrawn.
Recent events have proven that Israel is prepared, and would prefer, to settle the issue regarding the southwestern borders of Syria via negotiations through an intermediary. However, Israel has made it abundantly clear that its ‘red lines’ – the presence of Iran and Hizbullah on its borders – had not shifted. This is why the failure of Russian attempts to achieve a compromise settlement could lead to Israel’s unilateral attempts to resolve the issue militarily, which will affect both the Asad government and Russian interests in Syria.
The terms of the agreement between Russia and Israel on Iran have also not been disclosed. Like Russia, Iran was officially invited to Syria by the Damascus government. While Russia can complain about the illegitimacy of the presence of US troops in Syria, similar, even veiled, attacks on Iran would be seen as unfriendly not only in Tehran, but also in Damascus.
According to some researchers, Iran has set up permanent military bases inside Syria which can accommodate up to 10 000 troops under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Russia can benefit from the weakening of Tehran’s military positions in Syria, which it regards as an obstacle to a peaceful settlement, because they create the illusion in Damascus that a military option for resolving the conflict remains open. However, Russia has few political levers to enact a recalibration of Iran’s position. Tehran has already stated that no one has the right to demand Iran’s withdrawal from Syria. Therefore, the Israeli campaign to prevent Iranian forces from taking root in Syria benefits Russia too, as long as it does not look like an open provocation. This could also have a negative effect on the future of the last de-escalation zone in Idlib, which Lavrentiev said will not be a site of any major military operations. The statements by Asad about the forthcoming Idlib campaign, and the fact that Iranian forces are concentrated on the border of Idlib, suggest that, as far as Tehran and Damascus are concerned, a military operation has not been ruled out.
There are currently doubts about Russia’s ability – and political expediency – to impede the establishment of Iranian forces outside the southwest region, despite reports in the Israeli media that Moscow prevented Iran from setting up a naval base in Tartus. In all probability, the most that Russia can guarantee is a reduction in the presence of pro-Iranian troops within a given radius of the Israeli border; it may suggest extending the existing radius beyond the current eighty-five kilometres. In any case, Moscow kept pro-Iranian forces from taking part in an offensive operation in the southwest of Syria, and, according to some reports, caused the withdrawal of some Hizbullah units from the border areas in Syria to Lebanon.
Most likely, Moscow will insist on the partial demilitarisation of southwest Syria and will assume a significant role in guaranteeing security in the region. Thus, as part of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 350 adopted in 1974 on the disengagement of Syrian and Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, the Russian Military Police helped redeploy the UN Peacekeeping Mission to the demilitarised zone for the first time since 2012. In addition, Russia plans to deploy eight observation stations along the demilitarised zone as a temporary measure to protect the UN contingent. However, it is possible that Russia will maintain a permanent military presence in the region.
It appears that Iran was prepared to partially reduce its presence in southern Syria, at the very least in order to protect its own forces in the country. Just how long and how rigorously this zone might remain ‘Iran-free’, however, is up for debate. There are a number of reasons for this: the 85-kilometre radius includes Damascus, with its strategically important crossing to Lebanon, and the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, an important place of pilgrimage for Shi'a Muslims. The presence of Iranian forces in the southwest is necessary primarily to support the land bridge from Tehran to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Thus, by securing limited Iranian presence in the region, Moscow addressed the symptom, rather than the problem itself, meaning that it has achieved only a temporary and localised de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran.
By withdrawing Shi'a forces from the line of mutual disengagement of forces, Russia has guaranteed the security of Israel’s borders in the medium term. While the IRGC and Shi'a groups are being redeployed to the regions of instability in the Deir ez-Zor and Idlib governorates, the issue of Iran’s military presence in Syria is likely to fade into the background of Russia-Israel relations. This notwithstanding, Israel has made it clear to Moscow that it regards the entrenchment of Iranian troops across the country as unacceptable; there is a clear difference of opinion between Russia and Israel on this.
Outside southern Syria, the coastal regions and Hama, where Russia has a strong presence, Moscow will find it difficult to restrain Iran, particularly in conditions where Asad is skilfully manoeuvring between the interests of the two countries. It will also not be easy for Russia to keep Iran from deploying its air defence systems and surface-to-surface missiles, which is another ‘red line’ for Israel.
Russia will accept a confrontation between Israel and Iran that does not develop into a war but is marked by the regular probing of each other’s ‘red lines’. Moscow cannot demand that Iran reduce its military capabilities while Russia has entrenched itself in Syria with two military bases. Thus, Israel’s campaign to consistently undermine Iran’s military capabilities on the ground and weaken its influence partly fulfils the functions that Russia would like to take on itself but cannot for political reasons.
Moscow will likely reconcile with Tehran’s desire for a military presence in Syria, while assuming the responsibility for monitoring the areas of Iranian deployment and the weapons that it will obtain. It should be noted that Russia has little influence over Iran’s decisions with regard to Syria. A key player in limiting Iran’s influence is Asad himself; he has thus far skilfully balanced the interests of his two allies, using the complex dynamics between them to his advantage.
Iran’s presence in Syria has evolved over the course of the conflict. The Syrian National Defence Forces, effectively a parallel army with approximately 50 000 personnel, are sponsored and trained primarily by Iran. Further, home-grown militia were created and are under the protection of Iran, such as Hizbullah in Syria (Hizbullah fi Suriya), suggesting that the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country will still allow Iran to maintain significant influence on security matters across Syria, including in the southwest. For this reason, the issue that Russia will have to solve in the long term in Syria is not the number of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers and Shi'a fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan deployed in Syria under the Asad’s protection, but rather how the Syrian Armed Forces will be made up in the post-war period and what role Iran will play in security sector reform.
Closely intertwined with the growing confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria is the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or, rather, the US withdrawal from the agreement on 8 May 2018. Trump’s decision to reject the JCPOA was fully supported, and partially reinforced, by Netanyahu, who produced an archive of documents allegedly proving Iran’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons several days before the US announcement. Both Russia and Israel should be concerned by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, primarily because Iran’s response could be asymmetrical and involve a more aggressive military strategy in Syria, as well as attempts to take it out on one of Washington’s key allies, Israel.
Significant in this regard was an incident on 10 May 2018, when Iran’s elite Quds Force launched thirty-two rockets at the Golan Heights from Syria; Israel responded with strikes targeting a number of military facilities and an ammunition storage dump. This event is important, first, because it was the first time that Iran had committed such actions. The episode, just two days after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, may be interpreted as a harbinger of what the confrontation between Iran and Israel could resemble in the event of an asymmetric Iranian response to US actions. It also marked the merging of the Syrian conflict and the nuclear agreement into a single political issue for Israel.
The strategy of the USA and Israel on the JCPOA raises the suspicion that the US withdrawal was necessary to force Iran to respond and resume its nuclear programme. Even if Tehran did not make such a decision, the fact that there is suspicion over Iran’s intentions and mistrust will serve as an argument for the USA and its allies to pursue a more aggressive policy of isolation and deterrence. Israel supports a military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, but it does not have a strategy for dealing with it politically. Military confrontation with Iran and a scenario of containment is far more understandable to the Israeli leadership than political confrontation in a state of coexistence. At the same time, it is clear that if the nuclear deal falls through, Israel will likely pay the highest price.
Although Israel played no role in negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, the nuclear deal was seen as part of the general policy to contain Iran by both the USA and Israel. Even if Israel is not a key player in diplomatic negotiations, it is clearly seen as a critical player in deterring Iran, being capable of taking unilateral steps to degrade Iranian nuclear infrastructure. In March 2018, ten years after the incident, Israel admitted it had deployed Israeli fighter jets to strike a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, an admission that was meant to indicate to Iran that Israel was ready to launch a military strike on Iran if it believed the latter has resumed its nuclear programme.
Nevertheless, not all Israelis share Netanyahu’s view that the JCPOA was a historical mistake. For example, the chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eizenkot, expressed confidence that ‘right now the agreement, despite all its faults, works and prevents the implementation of the Iranian nuclear programme for the next 10-15 years’. The agreement with Iran did not bring the country any closer to the nuclear bomb that Netanyahu talked about. On the contrary, it was built on the fundamental distrust of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and based on the need for verification.
Within Israeli military circles, a more pragmatic position on the JCPOA has taken root, and it is with people in these circles that Moscow needs to build a more substantive dialogue on the Iranian nuclear issue. Judging by the fact that the discourse on Iran has changed in Israel since the USA pulled out of the deal, with the focus turning to Tehran as a source of regional problems, the dialogue between Russia and Israel is likely to be narrow, and the main challenge that Moscow will face in this context will be to return the focus to the nuclear programme.
The biggest dilemma for Russia within the framework of the Iranian response to the failure of the nuclear deal will be to balance the interests of the various circles within the political elite in Iran. The Iranian leadership is not unanimous on the policy to be pursued in response to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Trump’s actions have left Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in the minority, despite his call for joint action with Europe, Russia and China to preserve the deal.
Rouhani made it clear to the European Union that Iran’s decision about whether it remains part of the JCPOA depends entirely on the EU. Despite the fact that sections of Iran’s leadership threatened to pull out of the deal as soon as Trump had made his announcement, a decision was nevertheless delayed until the EU took its own decision on the matter. It is clear that, despite the warlike rhetoric, which is often little more than populism, for Iran, the nuclear deal – or, more importantly, the potential economic benefits accompanying the deal – is extremely important.
Iranian hardliners reacted sharply to the US decision and sought Rouhani’s resignation, since they did not believe in the ability of the EU to preserve the deal without changing its terms or attaching the regional aspect of Iran’s foreign policy to it. The 10 May events in Syria made it clear that Tehran’s asymmetrical response to the failure of the JCPOA in the form of intentional military escalation is an acceptable option for Iran, or for at least part of the Iranian establishment. In this context, Iran’s campaign in Syria, led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, is becoming extremely risky for Moscow. As far as the USA, EU and Israel are concerned, negotiations on the nuclear deal could very well be combined with the questions of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, and its regional expansion. It should be noted that EU countries are more careful about expressing this position than the USA and Israel.
The positions of Tehran and Moscow remain unchanged. In the negotiation process, neither Russia nor Iran (whose negotiations on the nuclear agreement are still being overseen by Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister) is prepared to amend the JCPOA and tie new restrictive measures to the agreement. However, judging by recent events in Syria, as far as the Iranian hardliners are concerned, Syria itself has become an unofficial response to the JCPOA’s collapse. Under these conditions, Russia should clearly divide its negotiating tracks and categorically oppose attempts to ‘increase the pressure on Tehran due to circumstances unrelated to the JCPOA and which, to a large extent, have nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear programme’. Moscow will probably not be prepared to use the Syrian problem as a lever in multilateral negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal, as it understands the lack of unanimity on these issues in Tehran.
Against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis and growing tensions in the Middle East, the issue of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is gradually losing its relevance, and many experts now viewthe Middle East Quartet as an outdated format. Were it not for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the US Embassy there, the Palestinian issue would have remained on the global backburner.
Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, as it is being called in Washington, on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue effectively eliminates key elements of the peace process (the establishment of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees), forcing Palestinians to search for new allies. Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, sees Moscow as an actor that can possibly return the processes of recent months into the framework of existing negotiating agreements. The PA has openly asked Russia for this.
Russia has traditionally been clear on the issue of the Israel-Palestine resolution. Putin repeatedly expressed his position at meetings with his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts, emphasising that Russia’s principled position supported the right of Palestinians to self-determination, and that the result of any solution should involve the cessation of the Israeli occupation of Arab lands that began in 1967 and the creation of an independent State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Russia first offered to host negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in Moscow in 2005. The idea of holding direct talksbetween Abbas and Netanyahu was brought up in the meeting between the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Putin in August 2016. The first direct meeting between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders since 2010 was supposed to have taken place in Moscow in September 2016, but the parties blamed each other for its cancellation. Abbas claimed the Israelis had unilaterally cancelled the meeting, while the Israelis said Palestinian preconditionswere unacceptable.
Moscow made a number of attempts to organise a summit, most recently in June 2018, but they all failed to materialise. Obviously, getting Netanyahu and Abbas to meet with Russian mediation is not an end in itself for Moscow, and such a meeting is not capable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It could, however, help restart the peace process, the Russians hope. But the Russian mediation initiative, unsuccessful for the past two years, threatens to turn from an intermediate goal into mission impossible for Russian diplomacy.
Multiple international initiatives on Israeli-Palestinian settlement that already exist risk working against the role that Moscow hopes to play. For example, the French conference the issue in 2016, which was actively promoted by the former French president, François Hollande, went no further than a single meeting in Paris. By spearheading mediation efforts, Moscow risks again demonstrating that relaunching the peace process in its current format is impossible. This will assist Washington’s ‘deal of the century’, and will open the path to a review of the terms of the negotiation process based on new facts on the ground since new borders were determined in 1967.
For Russia, a more visible role in the Palestinian settlement would provide it with a unique opportunity to strengthen its clout in the Middle East outside the Syrian setting, that is, outside a military context. To some extent, Moscow’s efforts on this front have to do with its positioning vis-a-vis the USA, Europe and Israel, and many experts agree that, for Putin, the fact of Russia’s participation in the peace process could be more important than the final settlement itself. In this context, the PA’s expectation that Moscow will become the advocate of the Palestinian position in negotiations with Israel is misplaced, despite the fact that the two have similar stances on the issue.
For Abbas, getting Russia involved in the process serves both foreign and domestic policy goals. The PA, headed by Abbas, has been unable to form a sense of national cohesion for Palestinians, while the administration is deeply localised and territorially fragmented. Many Palestinians are disappointed with the ‘peace process’, which has relied on US initiative for over two decades. Russia’s attempts to take a more active role hopes to reboot, in a sense, the internal Palestinian discourse and gives additional internal political support to Abbas.
Israel is not keen on Russia’s initiatives. Moscow is attempting to get Israel to negotiate on the Palestinian issue, but it is clear that Israel is counting on the American ‘deal of the century’. Thus, in April 2017, for the first time ever, the Russian foreign ministry recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. This step, which was received well by Israeli media, should have kickstarted Russia’s negotiation process, but the Israeli leadership approached it with caution.
Despite the fact that Israel does not see Russia’s role as a mediator outside of international initiatives, Netanyahu needs to give at least some leeway to Putin’s mediation initiatives. It is extremely important for Israel to preserve its fragile partnership with Russia, as this partnership is closely linked with cooperation in Syria, while the deterioration in relations against the backdrop of disagreements on Palestine could well undermine the dialogue on Syria. The issue of Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state in the Middle East remains and, in light of Iran’s growing role in Syria, the Israel-Palestinian process becomes even more dependent on the regional context. This is another reason why the Israeli leadership may value Moscow’s support.
Moscow, however, does not view Palestine and Syria as related issues in its relations with Israel. Further, Russia sees the prospect of a Palestinian deal as a logical continuation of its role in the region, a process that was set in motion by the country’s military campaign in Syria. At the same time, however, policy toolkits for Palestine and Syria files will remain different.
* Yury Barminis an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He focuses on issues related to Syria, and consults for government and private clients on issues related to the Russian policy in the Middle East.
By Matthieu Rey
Western powers have recently expressed great concern concerning unfolding events in the Syrian crisis and have denounced the ‘escalation’ of violence, by which they mean the fighting predominantly between Israeli and Iranian forces in the Golan Heights and in the southern part of Syria. Israel appears to have become increasingly more engaged with Syria. An examination of the Israeli commitment to Syria since the beginning of the uprising reveals a certain continuity and sheds light on whether there is a real directional shift for Israeli strategy.
2011: surprise and circumspection
While Syrians took to the streets in 2011, Syrian and Israeli authorities pursued tumultuous relations. On the one hand, Bashar al-Asad highly publicised his commitment towards Hizbullah’s struggle against the so-called Zionist state, organising meetings in Damascus, and posing with Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad, for example. He also helped transport weapons to Lebanon. On the other hand, al-Asad invited the regional powers to invest in the country and agreed on a new round of negotiations with the Israelis. Chaired by the Americans, Syria and Israel agreed on the main point of contention and seemed ready to find a solution.This policy was part of a broader one towards foreign partners. The Emir of Qatar and the Turks were granted good conditions in which to do business in Syria, while the Gulf elites could buy lands at strategic points. In this regard, the Syrian regime tried to strengthen itself by increasing its resources and stabilising its geopolitical situation in the post-2003 Middle East. It achieved success when French authorities under Sarkozy’s supervision invited Bashar al-Asad to the national celebrations on 14thJuly, 2011 and the Americans initiated discussions to re-open their embassy in Damascus. In this context, both Israel and Syria came closer to settling a major disagreement.
While settling the Lebanese’s issue under international constraint, informally and unofficially, the Syrian regime pursued discussions with the Israelis under American and partly French auspices. Bashar al-Asad sought a peace agreement that would return all Syrian lands to the regime and a financial commitment from the international community that would protect the agreement. Part of the negotiations involved an expectation that the Syrian regime would end its connections with Hizbullah. Decades previously, Henry Kissinger had laid the groundwork for Syria’s ambiguous diplomatic affinity with Israel. In 1974, Hafez al-Asad signed an agreement to halt strikes against Israel and to stop guerrilla attacks against Israel from its territory, and in exchange, Israel agreed to evacuate part of Syrian territory that it illegally annexed and occupied since 1967. Despite this agreement, Syrian propaganda towards Israel did not change and Hafez and Bashar al-Asad both presented themselves as the vanguard of resistance against Israel via open declaration and tactical support for some of Israel’s opponents. Continuing to covertly help Hamas, Hizbullah, and shelter the PKK was a way for al-Asad to gain traction over American diplomacy without facing retaliation.
Within a month of the start of the Syrian protests in March 2011, it was clear to the main protagonists that the Syrian – Israeli peace process could not continue while the Syrian regime was facing a massive uprising. From the Syrian regime, the cost of peace with Israel was too high because the Syrian rhetoric soon after the protests broke out sought to project the uprising as an ‘international plot against the Resistance’. While the protest spread from the southern part of Syria to other places and started to become organised, the regime focused on curbing the movement by inviting its historical ally, Iran, to help deal with the problem. From the Israeli side, the authorities put the discussions with Syria on hold, waiting to see if– as was the case with the other regimes – Bashar would fall and, if that was the case, therefore preferred to engage in negotiations with a reliable partner. At the same time, in May 2011, Israel did not complain about the tank movement towards the border, as they were deployed to curb the demonstrations in Hawran and the Golan Heights.
Israeli attitudes towards the Syrian crisis quickly took a new shape. A common reaction, both in society and in government, was surprise that popular mobilisation could shake a well-known dictator. During this period, Tel Aviv also witnessed protests, sit-ins and demonstrations calling for a new social contract and demands that state discourse and action move away from ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Arab’ issues towards internal distress. These feelings, nevertheless, did not build the new ‘Syrian’ policy. Israeli attitudes towards Asad’s regime had always been ambiguous. On the one hand, Syria provided assistance to enemies such as Hizbullah, Iran, etc. On the other hand, it had not launched any attacks on Israel since 1974, even in 2006 during the Israeli war against Lebanon, when strong popular pressure from Lebanese and Syrian populations called for an armed response from the Syrian regime.The Syrian revolts, therefore, did not immediately shift Israeli policy towards Syria, but discussions and contact between the two sides came to a standstill as diplomats and politicians awaited a more settled situation.
Tension between two positions (2011-2012)
On 6 June 2011, while protests were now taking place on a national scale, Asad’s regime initiated a tactical move to remind the Middle East of Syria’s abilities to harm the region. Syrian demonstrations celebrated Naqsa Day (the anniversary of Palestine’s losses during the Six-Day war) and protestors forced their way through the barricades on the Golan Heights. One protestor was able to reach his family’s land near Tel Aviv and then surrendered to the Israeli police. The police duly interrogated him about his journey, without any physical coercion, and returned him to the border, where the Syrian moukhabarat arrested him. This episode illustrated in several ways how the Syrians played the Israeli card. They launched a symbolic reconsideration of the status quo but refused local actors – even Palestinians – the freedom to act independently. This new policy provoked several reactions on the Israeli side.
Two main attitudes emerged from the Israeli debates during this period – from the second half of 2011 through the first half of 2012. On the one hand, the long enmity between Israel and Syria prevailed even though both sides undertook peace talks, thus leading some Israeli leaders to seek to undermine the Syrian regime. They voiced the possibility to help topple the regime, requesting either American pressure or support in different ways. The bloodshed also shook Israeli public consciousness. Some wanted to “help the Syrians” and stop what could be the next holocaust. However, these public statements were not connected to any general plan or policy. Therefore, Israeli humanitarian interventions in Syria remained an untaken path because of long-term consideration for the USA’s official policy position on the Syrian civil war.
On the other hand, the main policy position in Israel regarding Syria and military action was “wait and see”. While the Syrian regime was deeply focused on countering the protests, they fulfilled requests by the Israeli Defense Forcesand the Israeli government. The evolution of a revolutionary impulse in Syria concerned Israel on three main counts, and affected its daily activities. First, the collapse of the Asad regime could provoke chaos equivalent to that caused by the Iraqi crisis in 2003. Such a situation produced concerns that it might deeply threaten the common border. Second, Islamist groups could use the opportunity to take root in Syria and thereafter become a new enemy. In this regard, Israel frequently re-affirmed an old credo: “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know”. Third, the repressive process of the Syrian regime provided momentum for the Iranian authorities and their allies to extend their positions in Syria. These unfolding developments quickly became a red line for Israel: Iran should not be capable of exchanging weapons on Syrian territory with anyone, and it should not be allowed to build military installations targeting Syrian soil.
The importance of patiently monitoring the unfolding demise of the Syrian state progressively dominated Israeli policy towards Syria. ‘Wait and see’, or “undermining Asad’s capacities without being involved” seemed the best option to the Israelis. This conviction was strengthened by the international community’s attitude, predominantly the Americans. Two milestones marked the path of the American attitude towards the Syrian crisis and signalled American intentions to the Israelis. First, in August 2011, Barak Obama declared that Asad must to step aside.While Syrians interpreted the American position to imply that the USA planned to get involved in the crisis, the Israelis understood perfectly that the Americans did not plan any further intervention in the Middle East at the time they were withdrawing from Iraq. Second, in May 2012, Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria, if was found to have been perpetrated by the regime, would constitute a red line that might propel American intervention in the Syrian crisis. While several investigations during Spring 2012 provided evidence of wrong-doing by the Syrian regime, the USA did not pursue further action against the Asad government, thus proving to Israeli that the USA merely delivered speeches but rejected any involvement.
On the humanitarian side, Syrian and international NGOs implemented new programmes that mostly targeted the wounded on the Syrian side. They increased their activities during Summer 2012, when the Golan Heights became a theatre of fighting and the number of casualties increased. They participated to a certain extent in the cross-border operations without ever going over the border, as the Syrian civilian and rebel wounded were delivered to the non-military zone on the Golan. These initiatives came mostly from civil society and did not take into consideration the ideological or partisan positions of the wounded. Operations were supervised by the Israel Defence Forces and were the beginning of encroachment of Israel on the Golan front.
2013-2014: Implementing the red line, playing a diplomatic role
In late 2012 and early 2013, the weakening of Asad’s regime led other participants to get involved in the crisis. While foreign fighters entered the ranks of the opposition, other military groups helped the regime to fight against the Free Syrian Army and its allies. In April 2013, Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, recognised that the security of Asad and his organisation went hand in hand. Hizbullah forces then became the vanguard in the battle for the border town of Qusair. On the Syrian stage, Hizbullah’s involvement and its military successes turned the conflict into a more sectarian war than it had been previously. On the regional stage, this change showed Israel that its main enemies were heightening their involvement and interventions in the conflict.
Israel had its own red lines, and it implemented a response to one of those red lines on 31 January 2013. Israel targeted an alleged weapon convoy in the northwestern part of Damascus with an airstrike. This attack took place a week after the formation of Netanyahu’s third government. The Israeli prime minister had just won legislative elections. He immediately put into practice his hard line which he had been promoting for a long period of time. From his perspective, Iran was a danger to Israel and consequently to the world, especially as it sought to develop nuclear weapons. More generally, in his view, the downfall of the Islamic Republic would help to reshuffle the Middle East by allowing Israel’s friends to establish their dominance. The Free Syrian Army confirmed the death of an Iranian officer during the first bombing.
Over the next few months, Netanyahu’s government oscillated between two targets. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched strikes on 3 and 5 May, 2013. Each time the justification was that Israel could not tolerate the planned exchange of high quality weapons. Soon after, Obama declared that “The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organisations like Hizbullah”, and therefore provided American validation and support for the Israeli military incursions in Syria. These interventions, nevertheless, were not in any way part of the American policy towards the Syrian regime. During the Spring, oppositional Syrian fighters received supplies and formed a ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ front in Syria. However, these operations were not coordinated because different agencies commanded the fighting without subscribing to a common strategy. From this perspective, the Israeli attacks were one of the several initiatives authorised by the White House to curb recognised terrorist groups without making direct targeting its official policy.
On 5 June, Israel launched a new strike. This episode shed light on another aspect of Israeli politics. The attack – as has been said – targeted once again, a delivery of weapons to Hizbullah. The novelty was the location and the timing. The operation destroyed a convoy just after its formation on Russian military base. Finally, the United States publicised the strike, proving that Israel could act as a sword arm in the Middle East. This attack took place at a time when Russian military capacities were increasing and becoming more closely connected to the Syrian regime and its allies. The year 2013 constituted a turning point for the Israeli strategy and showed that Syrian anti-aircraft defense could not prevent the national territory from attack.
Consequently, during the first half of 2013, Israeli strategy became further clarified. Its enemy in Syria was Iran and its allies. The Syrian regime and its allies could not protect its facilities nor transport weapons. Occasionally, Israel supplied the United States with air power to manifest some of the latter’s commitment. In a sense, Israeli movements clarified the true meaning of the American policy. Two further developments confirmed this assertion. In August 2013, after the massive chemical attacks, Israel did not react when the United States postponed their response which paved the way for Russian re-entrenchment. In September 2014, Israel did not commit itself in the war against the Islamic State. Why? This enemy remained confined to the north-eastern part of Syria and Israeli intelligence monitored enemy progress towards its territory. On the southern Syria front, the al-Nusra front did not threaten Israel. Finally, the only change that came with the expansion of Israeli involvement in the conflict was the deployment and use of artillery and tanks from the Israeli side of the Golan against the Syrian side, targeting both opponents and partisans of the regime. Israel also reminded the Syrian regime of the cost of any counter attack against the coalition by destroying a Syrian airplane on the first day of the war.
Since 2015, playing Russia against Iran
At the beginning of 2015, with the sudden weakening of the Asad regime and the ascendance of autonomous Hizbullah forces on the ground, the main protagonists established front lines and demarcated territories. This reversal of fortune for Asad’s forces led some officers to call for aid. Vladimir Putin then saw a very specific moment for greater Russian involvement. Three factors underpinned his decision. First, Obama ended his presidency and the American administration was paralysed by the transition. Second, some Syrian officers clearly requested Russian intervention and as a result, Russia could establish talks with certain factions. Third, the latest advance of opposition forces on Hama and Deraa fronts put the whole Russian enterprise in jeopardy. In May 2015, Russia undertook the first steps towards a greater commitment in Syria, deploying forces and negotiating a military base for its actions.
On 29 May 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu fled to Moscow and meet Vladimir Putin.He was the only head of State to reach the Russian capital immediately after the redeployment of the Russian army in Syria was first announced. While the United States and Russia did not discuss a further common strategy because Russia did not belong to the international coalition active in Syria against the Islamic State, the prime minister of Israel offered mediation between Israel and Russia on the Syrian files. Their negotiations reached some conclusions, the most important one being the exchange of the code to identify military aircraft flights. Consequently, the IDF and the Russian army could coordinate – or at least know about – attacks from both sides.
Why did Israel and Russia agree on this? The Israeli-American alliance has been well-known since the 1960s. However, since the USSR collapsed, connections between Israel and Russia had increased thanks to the migration of Russian Jews to Israel which motivated increased economic ties with Russia. From this perspective, Russia had an economic interest in Israel, more than in any other country in the Middle East. From the Russian point of view, Israel was important. On the Israeli side, Benjamin Netanyahu understood the opportunity to work hand in hand with Russia in order to implement his own agenda. He wanted to assure that Russia would not counter the Israeli strategy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, and particularly its struggle against Iran.
Since 2015, major lines have emerged. On the one hand, Russia has operated widely in Syria without acting on the southern front. On the other hand, on several occasions, the Israeli army attacked the Syrian territory, targeting weapons transfers, but it did not involve itself in Russian operations. This was the precise time when Benjamin Netanyahu presented his arguments against Iran and its potential nuclear research to the United Nations General Assembly. Israel nevertheless restrained from a massive operation on Syrian territory while monitoring any further advances of the Iranian army into Syria. In turn, it also looked for allies in the rebels’ brigade that might allow for the protection of the Golan Heights border. This strategy seemed to reproduce Israeli strategy in Lebanon whereby Israel targeted groups against Hizbullah to build a southern protection zone. General fatigue and long-term fights between rebels and the regime explained how and why some groups favoured an alliance with Israel.
The election of Donald Trump changed Netanyahu’s agenda. The new American president deeply committed himself to reversing his predecessor’s politics. He placed troops on the ground in the northern part of Syria, launched further attacks against IS but also targeted the Syrian army when it attempted to encroach on SDF territory. This change in the American approach towards Syria was part of a broader agenda. Trump’s administration quickly adopted a more traditional American policy towards the Middle East that included defending oil roads (that also supported Petromonarchies and their policies) and Israel. Trump asserted three main points: Israel was their greatest ally in the region; the monarchies of the Gulf were strategic allies; the United States had to support leaders whatever their ideologies or policies, if they were in favour of the United States.
Following these new guidelines, Benjamin Netanyahu waited for a clear sign from the White House to act in Syria. He restrained from launching further attacks during the last sequence of the war against IS. Russia then pursued military operations saving the regime and reconquering most strategic places. When major actors took control over major assets, that is protecting the Asad’s regime for the Russians and controlling the North-Eastern part of Syria for the United States, preserving the link between Iraq and Syria, then, the Israeli government deemed it would be empowered to move against its declared enemy: Iran. Why did Iran push further its local presence? This action was most likely a sign for its Syrian supporters. The Iranian authorities acting in Syria failed to notice the American political reverse towards Iran. When President Trump denounced the Iranian nuclear agreement, it paved the way for the Israeli intervention against Iranian troops and facilities inside Syria. Jordan, Israel, and the United States also agreed in 2017 to de-escalate actions in Southern Syria, thereby further highlighting the new geopolitical approach of the region.
Over the past few weeks, Israelis added a new conflict to the ongoing fight. The authorities’ targets are the Iranians building up a new stage for a regional reconfiguration. Iran’s recent actions have further isolated it. The Iranian regime faces opposition from the Gulf countries, internal political forces (as Sadr in Iraq), Israel, and the United States. Israel moved to be the sword arm of this group. On the other side, Russians did not commit themselves in the protection of the Iranians. They even called for the removal of all foreign troops on Syrian soil which included the international coalition and Iran. Consequently, a low level violence conflict will continue for the next few months between Iran and Israel. The grip of Iranian militias on Quneitra, however, has prevented the Israeli from complete control of the border.
The southern battle proved how Russia managed its intelligence’s war by obtaining allegiance from most of the rebels’ leaders. Then, using intense bombing, their followers – mostly elite Syrian troops and militias – reconquered cities and villages. Iran did not take a great part in the operation but its forces rooted in Quneitra had not been removed either. The status quo prevailed. The quick move highlighted the Israeli connections and tractions on the Golan front. Since 2013, Israel had financed nearly 12 rebel groups. Militia chiefs were asked why they agreed on an alliance with Israel, they answered hypocritically that Israel does not target civilians, contrary to Bashar al-Asad. This shift also pinpointed the reverse of the Palestinian cause on Syrian minds. Humanitarian help in the Golan Heights had been maintained until last June as a way to keep the Syrian population in Syria (to mitigate mainly a refugee crisis in Israel), and to respond to requests of the public to save civilians dying on the border. Finally, under Jordan, Canadian and European pressure, Israel helped evacuate White Helmets into Jordan. While the Southern battle is over for at least a few months, none of the Israeli partners seemed to leave Syria. The recent strike around Mezze and in the Alawite mountains clarify Israeli commitment to undermine any Iranian facilities in Syria.
Three main outcomes can be underlined as follows:
 Author’s interview with Ambassador Hof, Washington, April 2014.
 Author’s interview with Vladimir Glassman, Paris, December2013.
 Rey, Matthieu (2015). ‘La diplomatie de l’incompréhension.’ Moyen-Orient(automne).
Vladimir Putin’s return to power in Russia in 2012 signified a dramatic change in the country’s foreign policy and military strategy. Scrapping the achievements of the Dmitry Medvedev era in the Kremlin, which was characterised by a thaw in relations with the West, Putin opted for a more aggressive approach to positioning the country in the international arena. Experts still argue what prompted this review of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, but the developments that likely had a major impact on Putin’s policy planning in 2012 included the war with Georgia in 2008, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) infamous military campaign in Libya, which brought down Russia’s long-time ally Muammar Qaddafi.
Contours of the new policy approach to the region started emerging when Russia updated two of its key documents, the ‘Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation’ and the ‘Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation’, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. This served as de facto justification for the Russian military campaign in Syria and the Concept became the first official document to elucidate the country’s ambition to play a bigger role in the MENA region. In the three years that divide the two concepts, Putin’s approach to foreign policy evolved and became increasingly securitised. (The word ‘terrorism’ features fifteen times in the 2013 Concept and thirty-five in the 2016 edition.) The Foreign Policy Concept also spells out the Russian president’s growing ambition to deal with instability at its origin, before it reaches Russian borders.
The rationale behind Russia’s re-emergence as a leading power in the Middle East was of a defensive nature and largely reactive. The uprisings in the region were a painful reminder of the Colour Revolutions that broke out across several post-Soviet states in the first half of the 2000s, and, according to the Kremlin, led to the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution in Ukraine. Putin himself believes that the MENA uprisings were a continuation of those Colour Revolutions and that both were foreign-instigated. A wave of revolutions across Eurasia convinced the Russian leadership that the possible domino effect of regime change would eventually target Russia. It is not coincidental that the Russian president likens Colour Revolutions and the MENA uprisings, and often makes no distinction between them. Commenting on anti-corruption protests in Russia in March 2017, he went as far as to call them ‘an instrument of the Arab Spring’.
A gradual withdrawal of the USA from the Middle East under Barack Obama meant that the region’s ‘policeman’ was no longer interested in maintaining order there, which arguably presented Moscow with numerous security challenges. Russia’s re-emergence in the Middle East happened, to a large extent, to fill some of the void left by the retreating Obama. In some cases it was effortless, such as in Egypt, where the US decision to cut aid to Cairo in 2013 led to the emergence of a budding Russia-Egypt alliance. In other contexts, most prominently in Syria, Russia had to invest significant diplomatic and military resources to marginalise the USA in the war and the peace process. What started out as an attempt to replace the USA where it was no longer interested in playing a leading role transformed into an ambition to challenge the USA even where it had no intention of retreating, for instance, in the Gulf region.
Russia’s return to the Middle East differs from the Soviet experience. Today, Moscow is extending its reach without the baggage of Soviet ideology. The idea of using its arms exports to the Middle East in the ideological struggle against the West evaporated when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) disintegrated and was replaced with the idea of making a profit for the cash-strapped budget. The Kremlin hopes to support its geopolitical claims with a strong pragmatic dimension.
In the Middle East, Moscow seeks to reinforce its influence there as well as offset the burden upon the Russian federal budget associated with the expenses of the Syrian campaign. Following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, Russia has used arms deals to reach out to Cold War-era allies in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria to consolidate a new power balance. During the Cold War, Wynfred Joshua and Stephen P. Gilbert wrote that as more countries became recipients of Soviet military aid programmes, there was a tendency for them to become greater political allies of the Soviet Union.
With Putin declaring victory over the Islamic State group (IS) during his December 2017 visit to Syria, Russia is faced with numerous opportunities and challenges. Its military operation in Syria may have put Russia back on the radar in the Middle East, and has solidified its position in the region. As Putin eyed re-election as president early March 2018, foreign policy achievements, chiefly in the MENA region, figured prominently in his election rhetoric.
An effect of Russia’s assertive foreign policy has become an expectation from regional partners and opponents alike that Moscow will be active in the Middle East. However, the hard power that brought Russia to prominence in the region will not be helpful to support long-term influence there, and could, in fact, produce a negative impact for Russia’s international standing. As a result, during his next term in office, Putin will be faced with a challenge to depart from hard power, his preferred modus operandi, to embrace a spectrum of other tools that will help make Russia’s presence in the region lasting and sustainable.
From Status Quo disruptor to Status Quo creator
New Military Positioning
In the next few years, due to Russia’s gains in Syria, Moscow will be recalibrating its military position in the wider region. The most significant of its gains has to do with the establishment of permanent military bases in Syria. In December 2017, the Russian parliament approved the agreements with the Syrian government leasing the Tartus and Hmeymim bases to Russia for forty-nine years with an automatic twenty-five-year extension.
The establishment of a permanent military presence in Syria fits with Russia’s strategy to acquire air and naval supremacy in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, and signals the restoration of the Soviet strategy toward the region. From 1967 until the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet 5th Squadron operated in the Mediterranean, despite Moscow having no permanent bases in the region. In 2013, the Russian president made a decision to revive a perpetual naval presence there and ordered the establishment of the Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) within the Black Sea Fleet.
Russia has developed what some analysts call an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Mediterranean. Along with the deployment of the S-400 air-defence system to Syria in November 2015 (and to Crimea, in August 2016), the Russian naval group in the eastern Mediterranean is equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles and P-800 Onyx anti-ship missiles, which create an added advantage against a potential enemy. given its security problems, which affect the whole international community.
Russia is increasing its military cooperation with Cairo, a partner with which Moscow had a strong partnership under Gamal Abdel Nasser and now with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Military-technical cooperation between the two countries is on the rise. More importantly, this cooperation now extends to annual joint naval drills as Russia looks for additional access to Egypt’s military infrastructure. Moreover, in order to simultaneously boost its Libya portfolio, Russia reportedly boosted the frequency of its use of Egyptian facilities at the border with Libya, including the port of Marsa Matrouh and the base at Sidi Barrani, once used by the Soviet Union. Moscow may now wish to revive, and even expand, this type of relationship.
At the same time, Russia has been increasingly looking at warm-water ports in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the 2000s. Moscow has significantly stepped up diplomatic engagement with each of these states over the past twenty years since the Soviet collapse. Moreover, in 2006, the two governments signed Algeria’s largest post-Cold War arms deal, amounting to $7.5 billion. Moreover, the two countries signed an agreement on counter terrorism cooperation in 2016, and have held two rounds of consultations on stepping up joint countering of violent extremism in North Africa and setting up regular exchanges of intelligence on extremist groups. The issue of Western Sahara is the kind of political leverage that Russia could use in order to position itself as a go-to mediator for Morocco.
Military presence in the Mediterranean may be only the first step in Moscow’s ambitious naval expansion. With the MTF deployed to the Mediterranean in 2013, Russia also started demonstrating a keen interest in the Red Sea, sending its warships there for drills as well as to project power. It is yet to be seen how Russia feels about setting up such a base so soon after acquiring a permanent military foothold in the Mediterranean. But proposals like this are indicative of how local powers perceive Russia’s growing role in the region.
It is in Russia’s long-term interest to continue expanding its military capabilities in the Mediterranean to support existing bases in Syria, linking its northern and Black Sea fleets’ operations in the Atlantic, as well as to obtain more leverage against NATO. Given failed Soviet attempts to set up a military presence in Egypt and Libya, Russia may finally revisit this idea.
Channelling growing military clout toward political sustainability
The key challenges facing Russia in the next few years concern how to convert gains made in Syria into sustainable political influence in the wider region. Military power projected by Moscow in the Syrian conflict and, by extension, its political clout, have allowed it to be recognised as a leading external power in the Middle East. Once the fighting dies down, however, Moscow will have a hard time maintaining its relevance in the region at the same level.
Without ways to project political power in the Middle East, Russian military forces there will be irrelevant. The bottom line is that hard power is a crisis management tool but not an agenda setting one. Moscow’s military clout in the region has reached the level at which it guarantees Russia presence in the Middle East, but it does not guarantee long-term political influence.
For Russia to replace the United States as the guarantor of security in the Middle East, it needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the region. But if Putin looks to preserve his country’s influence in the region, he will need to come up with ways to engage partners that would convince them of Russia’s resolve. With the Middle East not being the most strategically important region to Moscow, Putin will need to decide exactly how much influence he actually wants to project in the region. Maintaining the image of a great power in the Middle East will require Russia to invest diplomatically and financially in the resolution of other crises, such as the Libyan war and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. However, these investments will chiefly concern maintaining stability in the region and will not yield fast returns.
Finally, Russia will need to set a long-term agenda for the Middle East. Moscow’s Middle East strategy has thus far been characterised by short-termism, with its actions being largely reactive and most decisions ad hoc. This was evidenced by the fact that Russia’s bid on Iran’s ground forces as the main fighting force in Syria later led to multiple attempts by Tehran to hijack international agreements on the ground and undermine Moscow’s mediation attempts. According to him, the mechanism should include the Arab countries as well as Turkey, Iran and Israel. The collective security system must consist of three tracks or ‘baskets’: security, economy and humanitarian cooperation. Disarmament in the Middle East should become a starting point for the discussion on a regional security system. The first steps in this direction could be the creation of demilitarised zones, the prohibition of destabilising accumulations of conventional weapons (including anti-missile weapons), and a balanced reduction of armed forces by the main military powers in the region and neighbouring countries.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2015, when he announced the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria, Putin proposed creating a global anti-IS coalition ‘similar to the anti-Hitler’ alliance. The proposal, which he has voiced several times in the course of the Russian operation in Syria, pointedly feeds into the idea of creating a regional security system. The viability of a regional anti-IS alliance was demonstrated when Turkey, Iran and Russia partnered to implement de-escalation zones in Syria. Egypt and Jordan played a distinct role in the negotiation process on the creation of de-escalation zones and their implementation, and Putin may try to institutionalise what looks a lot like a regional anti-extremist alliance. An anti-terrorist alliance that could later transform into a collective security system seems to be one of the few areas in which Russia is willing to commit resources, based both on Russia’s domestic security concerns and its foreign policy calculations.
Old and New Partners
With Russia’s military position gradually readjusting as a result of the Syrian conflict, its partnerships night also eventually undergo a broader rethink. Russia will need to find a way to reach out to Sunni Arab powers and win their trust, which was undermined by Russia’s perceived alliance with the Shi'a in the Syrian conflict. According to Pew Research, as of mid-2017, only 28 per cent of people in the Middle East expressed confidence in Russia and Putin’s foreign policy, and only 35 per cent had a favourable view of Russia. The process of reconstruction in Syria also means that Russia and Iran will have to shoulder a heavy financial burden if they want to continue to play a leading political role in the country; neither, however, is capable of doing that. Consequently, Russia has asked world powers, to chip in, which will require a significant draw-down in Iran’s political role in Syria.
While Russia’s relationship with Iran is set to become rockier, there is no guarantee that Moscow’s ties with Sunni powers, specifically Saudi Arabia, will transform into a real partnership. The visit of the Saudi king, Salman, to Moscow in October 2017 may have indicated a positive dynamic in bilateral relations, but it was largely prompted by the Saudi domestic dynamic rather than a genuine desire to reach out to Moscow. The biggest achievement that Moscow and Riyadh can boast about is that they managed to compartmentalise their relations, as demonstrated by the oil deal reached by Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in November 2016, despite the ongoing Syria crisis.
Dichotomy Between Stability and Managed Democracy
Experts who had argued that authoritarianism in the Middle East would maintain stability and keep extremism at bay were proven wrong by the events of the Arab uprisings.
In Turkey, the July 2016 attempted coup was used by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as an excuse to crack down not only on suspected plotters, but also on wider circles critical of the government’s policies. Western powers rebuked Erdoğan over his suspension of the rule of law and mass detentions – but Russia pointedly did not. Putin was the one world leader who called Erdoğan to tell him Moscow supported his campaign to root out dissent, which the Turkish president described as ‘anti-constitutional’. All this occurred just weeks after Erdoğan’s late June apology to Russia for the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 jet over Syria, and it shows how masterfully Putin uses authoritarian movements to his own political benefit.
Egypt is experiencing a similar wave of authoritarianism, with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi cracking down on dissent that is not necessarily associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. That government campaign is happening against the backdrop of economic instability, currency devaluation and increased poverty rates. However, the army’s grip on power and full control over the public sphere give a semblance of stability. Sisi’s fight to eradicate extremism in the Sinai and his crackdown on dissent find support in Moscow, as reflected in official statements from the Kremlin. Egypt reemerged as Russia’s key partner in the Middle East, including in crucial spheres of military-technical cooperation. The two countries signed a protocol on military cooperation in March 2015, significantly ramped up joint military exercises, and are looking to green light an agreement that would allow Russian military aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and infrastructure.
A combination of factors bolstered Russia’s commitment to intervention in Syria. First, geopolitically, the fall of Asad would mean humiliation for Russia, his main global ally, and would deprive Moscow of a springboard to the rest of the Middle East. Second, from a pragmatic standpoint, Syria’s proximity to Russia, coupled with its becoming a training camp for jihadists from the former Soviet Union, meant that the civil war there was becoming a national security issue for Moscow. Hence, Putin undertook this risky affair albeit with no guaranteed outcome.
Syria, however, gives one a skewed idea as to how Russia’s strategy toward the region may look in the future. The military campaign in Syria cost Russia $484 million, according to Putin, These costs have been offset by returns on arms contracts and the existing budget for drills. This sum is manageable for the federal budget, even despite low oil prices. Russia’s defence spending has been continuously growing from 2010; its share in the GDP increased from 3.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent in 2016. Syria was the reason that the Ministry of Defense managed to secure a larger budget until 2016, but it is also the reason that Moscow now looks for ways to cut the overinflated defence expenses. This indicates that the Syria operation is an exceptional affair that Russia is unlikely to repeat elsewhere in the Middle East due to geopolitical risks as well as financial costs that are already too high.
With the focus previously exclusively on Syria, the Russian foreign policy agenda toward the Middle East appears highly securitised. Meanwhile, the military and intelligence circles took charge over policy making towards the region. Despite a wide range of goals that Moscow pursues in Syria, the distinct focus on security issues stoked fears over Russia seeking a military foothold in the Middle East by US officials.
While Syria is a special case, Libya might provide more insight into how Russia will position itself vis-à-vis conflicts in the Middle East in the future. Following the fall of its partner Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Moscow did not show much interest in the Libyan conflict, essentially leaving it to NATO to deal with. At the same time, Libya was a convenient case to revert to in order to lambaste the West each time Russia felt its interests in the Middle East were ignored.
Russia re-emerged on the Libya scene pronouncing no specific agenda and making incoherent statements about the desired endgame as the Libyan civil war erupted. In 2016, following Haftar’s visit to Moscow, the international community was convinced that the Kremlin was looking at Libya within the context of where it would continue to project military power once the conflict in Syria is over. The Russian ambassador to Libya, Ivan Molotkov, publicly spoke of a possible delivery of Russian weapons to the government in Tobruq. Many experts predicted a Russian military operation in the country and looked for signs of a military build-up, but those predictions were repeatedly proven wrong.
This approach worked, and Russia became a go-to power for various parties to the Libyan conflict. Moscow hosted representatives of the Tripoli government as well as representatives from Misrata, the two major power centres in Libya. More importantly, Russia facilitated direct talks between Tripoli and the Touareg and Tobu tribes in November 2017, the first such talks between these parties, given the fact that the tribes had not sided with any party yet. This marks the emergence of a fundamentally new approach to conflict resolution in Russia. Hypothetically, Russian military aid and diplomatic support for Haftar could have resulted in the capture of Tripoli by his Libyan National Army, marking the end of the Libyan Political Agreement. Moscow, however, made a U-turn away from Haftar and opted for a more balanced position towards the settlement of the conflict, which helped it be recognised as a key power broker by all sides in this conflict.
The ‘strategic equidistance’’ approach that Russia adopted in Libya is something Putin might explore further in the future. There are numerous signs that Russia will attempt to become a referee and power broker in other contexts in the Middle East as well. One example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Russia did not issue harsh criticism of either the USA or Israel. The Russian Foreign Ministry limited its response to ‘serious concern’.
Russia’s relatively calm reaction to Trump’s move and Israel’s policies toward Palestine can be explained by Moscow’s growing ambition to play a bigger role in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia intensified its diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2016, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited both in an attempt to bridge their differences. Later, in January 2017, Russia hosted all major Palestinian political organisations, Saudi Arabia pursued a similar charm offensive, which culminated in King Salman’s visit to Russia.
As Syria gradually falls from the top of Russia’s political agenda in the Middle East over the next years, Moscow will look for new ways to stay relevant in the region. Russia’s permanent military bases in Syria have the potential to change the power balance in the Mediterranean. Moscow has created a heavily guarded perimeter in the eastern Mediterranean by deploying air defence capabilities to Syria, complementing its permanent naval force in those waters. Together, these deployments and growing capabilities will become a challenge for NATO as Moscow spreads its presence into the alliance’s naval underbelly in the Mediterranean. Russia is also expanding military cooperation with Egypt and the future government in Libya, and is expanding its naval presence in the Red Sea.
Politically, however, hard power will produce fewer benefits for Moscow, at higher costs, which is why the Russian government will need to discover new ways to remain relevant in the regional arena. Having used Syria to rebuild its image as a regional power, Russia is faced with the challenge of how to balance its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of which is a true ally for Moscow. In order to forge stronger regional alliances, Putin might revisit the idea of a global anti-terrorist coalition, which feeds into the concept of a regional system of collective security widely discussed by Russian policymakers.
Trying to insert itself in regional politics in the post-Syria era, Russia is likely to rebrand its image in the Middle East and position itself as a regional referee in an attempt to offset the negative impact of the Syrian conflict for its image. Being a regional referee, however, does not necessarily translate into being a supporter of democracy. The legacy of the MENA uprisings and Russia’s own experience with democratic movements led Putin to believe that authoritarian stability may help the Middle East overcome its security problems. And Russia’s military campaign in Syria has further crystallised this notion for the Kremlin.
* Yuri Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, covering the Middle East and North Africa, and Moscow’s policy towards the region
 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, approved by the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on 30 November 2016. http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2542248.
In his widely acclaimed book All the Kremlin’s Men, Mikhail Zygar, an insider into the workings of Putin’s inner circle, argues that Putin absorbed the death of Qaddafi as a lesson: weakness and compromise were impermissible. ‘When he [Gaddafi] was a pariah, no one touched him,’ Zygar wrote. ‘But as soon as he opened up he was not only overthrown but killed in the street like a mangy old cur.’
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 Anton Mardasov, ‘Russia re-examines relationship with Iran’, Al Monitor, 14 August 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/russia-relationship-iran-syria-military-situation-moscow.html.
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By Afro-Middle East Centre
After seven years of the raging Syrian civil war, Israel has emerged from the shadows to launch a campaign in Syria, continuing its battle with Hizbullah, Iran and Syria, while also looking to capture more Syrian territory along its borders. Soon after Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned from a trip to Russia, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacked a branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Syria’s Hama province on 11 September. The centre is located in the town of Masyaf, sixty kilometres east of Tartus, where the Russians maintain a naval repair base. Israeli strikes in Syria are not uncommon. In this context, however, Israel hopes to eliminate any possible challenge to its activities in Syria, hence the recent (more than normally-) aggressive tone against Iran. Unlike Russia and the USA (two of the major external actors in Syria), Iran (with Hizbullah) and Turkey are uninterested in having Israeli interests protected. The quest to malign Iran in the region, and discredit its presence in the Syrian conflict is the reason that Israel’s double-edged campaign seeks to create a buffer zone from the border of Golan Heights further into Syria, and ward off any present and future threats from Iran and Hizbullah.
Relations between Israel and its northeastern neighbour have always been rocky. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the Golan, Syrian territory which lies within an area of 444 square kilometres – from the Yarmuk River in the south, Jordan Rivre and the Sea of Galilee in the west. m Syria’s military and diplomatic attempts to force Israel out of the Golan have failed on numerous occasions, including after the 1973 war; in 1981 Israel illegally annexed two-thirds of the Golan Heights, and has been building settlements there since. Over the past five years, the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan has changed hands between the Syrian regime and rebel forces.
Today, the area controlled by Israel is inhabited by approximately 40 000 people, of which half are Syrian and the other half Israeli Jewish settlers. The Golan Heights is a strategic asset that supplies Israel with 30 percent of its fresh water from the Jordan river. The Golan also has fertile agricultural lands for multiple products and is useful for the production of renewable energy.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Israel’s occupation of the Golan has remained in the background, allowing Israel’s ambitions to extend its control beyond two-thirds of the Golan Heights to fester. This is seen starkly in Israel’s demands to extend its current twenty-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ into Syria. Israel wants to expand the buffer zone to sixty kilometres from the border on the Golan Heights to the west of the road connecting Damascus and the city of al-Suwayda in southwest Syria.
This buffer zone in Syria would mirror Israel’s ‘Good fence’ policy employed in Lebanon when the civil war broke out in 1975. There, Israel established military and social networks with local Lebanese groups, assisting them to fill the vacuum that had been left by the government in terms of service provision as a way to sustain its occupation of Lebanese territory. In Syria this ‘good fence policy’ aims to consolidate Israeli control over Syrian territory as Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s position strengthens in the six-year civil war, and Hizbullah and Iran become increasingly entrenched.
In June 2017, Israel provided funding and aid to certain Syrian rebel factions – particularly Fursan al-Joulan (Knights of Golan), through the Golan. Fursan al-Joulan boasts 400 fighters and is close to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), and the Israeli effort to support it was set up in 2013 by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Fursan al-Joulan has effectively maintained security on Israel’s behalf in Syria-controlled Golan in exchange for the group receiving $5 000 a month, as well as food and medical supplies. Israel seeks to thus alter and shape the outcome of the Syrian civil war, in a way that ensures that it continues its occupation of the Golan. Israel also seeks to realise its interests is by getting the USA and Russia to uphold these interests in Syria via the ceasefire deal negotiated in Astana in Kazakhstan by Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime and opposition groups in Syria.
With the recent agreements between Russia, Iran and Turkey, supported by Jordan and the USA, Israel saw an opportunity to expand its control of Syrian territory further, and its sporadic air-strikes in Syria are part of this agenda. The strikes, which Israel claims targetHizbullah arms convoys or warehouses, have been the biggest indicator of its involvement in the Syrian war. These airstrikes had previously resulted in strong diplomatic reaction from Russia. Earlier this year, Moscow summoned Israel’s ambassador in protest, to show that it did not appreciate Israel’s actions against a Russian partner, Iran, which has played a strategic role in supporting the Asad regime. However, this Russian attitude seems to have changed more recently with a seeming romance between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu.
Astana de-escalation deal
The Russian role in Syria has been critical to the survival of the Asad government, and has strengthened the regime’s position in the war, as well as created the possibility of a ceasefire deal that will see Turkey, Russia and Iran act as guarantors in different zones in Syria. Such a deal, which has been accepted by the USA, has spurred Israel’s campaign against what it calls a ‘permanent Iranian threat’ in Syria.
The Russia-Iran-Turkey de-escalation zones deal was signed in May in Astana, Kazakhstan, and calls for an end to hostilities between (most) rebel groups and Syrian government forces in four regions. The first zone – Idlib province in the northern region, including north-eastern areas of Latakia province, western areas of Aleppo province and northern areas of Hama province – will be monitored by Turkey; the second – Rastan and Talbiseh enclaves in northern Homs province – and the third – which includes eastern Ghouta in northern Damascus – will be monitored by Russia. The fourth zone – including areas along the Jordanian border and parts of Dar'a and Quneitra provinces – will be monitored by Iran, and this is what the Israelis are upset about.
Israel justifies its demand for a stake in the Syrian pie by focusing on this fourth zone, and its supervision by Iran. Hostilities between Israel and Iran date back to the Iranian revolution in 1979, when Iran altered the previously friendly relations with Israel by ceasing ties with the latter and openly supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. More recently, Israel has focused on Iran’s nuclear programme, which, it claims, threatens its existence and stability in the Middle East. Additionally, Israel regards Iran as an enemy for its support of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, and the Lebanese party Hizbullah.
As part of its campaign to realise greater Israeli control of Syrian territory, the head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was dispatched to the USA to warn US President Donald Trump of ‘the imminent threat of Iran’s presence in Syria’. In addition, Netanyahu himself flew to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin while the latter was holidaying in Sochi. Netanyahu informed Putin (and the world) that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria. Israel values its relations with Russia and recognises the strategic position of Moscow in the Syrian civil war. With this trip, Netanyahu hoped to gain Russian support to curb Tehran’s role in Syria in the future.
The Russians, trying to appear unfazed by Israel’s warning and requests against the ‘threat of Iran in Syria’, have not fully given in to Israel’s demands, but have made certain concessions. Although not agreeing to the extension of the buffer zone, they have, for example, propose a deal that Israel will find beneficial: keeping Iranian troops away from the south of Syria, and preventing them from maintaining a permanent presence in Syria. The deal might not fully give Israel what it wants, but effectively accedes to part of Israel’s request.
Despite being slightly rebuffed by the Russians, and not evoking sufficient American interest, the Israeli campaign will not easily back down, with Netanyahu hoping to insert Israel into the de-escalation deal, and expanding the Syrian territory that it controls. In July this year, a ceasefire deal brokered between the US, Russia and Jordan was widely welcomed by Israel. This deal – also hailed by Jordan – covers parts of Dar’a, Quneitra and western Suwayda, and is set to continue to secure the Jordanian border, which closed in June 2016. Under the deal, groups fighting against Iranian and Syrian forces were asked to cease fighting in the area by their US backers. They have also been asked to return artillery and anti-tank missiles. Israel prefers this agreement to the Astana deal, which recognises Iran as the monitor of areas along the Jordanian border, Quneitra and Dar’a. This zone seeks to create more of a de-militarised zone than a de-escalation zone, warding off the presence of any military hardware (belonging to regime or opposition groups) in the south, thus lifting the threat of an attack on Israeli assets in the Golan.
The Syrian civil war has been characterised by a complex web of involvement by and relations between foreign states. Despite a myriad of attempts to find a solution to the crisis, only the Russian-sponsored Astana (Kazakhstan) process has, thus far, yielded any results – modest as they might be. One of those outcomes has been the de-escalation deal that seeks to create ceasefire zones monitored and supported by Russia and Iran – which are major players in the war and have strengthened the Asad regime, as well as Turkey – which has backed the Syrian opposition. Israel sees in the de-escalation plan an opportunity to advance its own interests – particularly the extension of its territorial control further into Syria – in addition to its occupation of the strategic Syrian Golan Heights. It is using the fact of Iran’s role in the plan to, first, attempt to stymie Iran’s involvement in Syria for the future, and, second, to attempt to justify its own bid for control over Syrian territory. It seeks to thus lay the foundation for a long-term plan of expanding territory beyond Golan into Syria.
Although the USA usually readily supports Israel’s ambitions in the region, it is not an architect of the Astana deal, and has to defer to Russia. It is unclear whether the latter will ultimately give in to Israel’s requests. Although Russia and Iran are currently allies, Moscow is also concerned about Iran’s role in the region being elevated through a resolution in Syria, and might be willing to allow Israel to fulfil some of its ambitions in the interests of keeping Iran in check. Support from Russia and the USA on the issue will also embolden Israel to continue building settlements on Palestinian lands.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Talks between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, held in Kazakhstan’s capital from 23 to 24 January, concluded with Russia, Turkey and Iran announcing their intention for a trilateral mechanism to monitor and enforce the ceasefire between regime forces and rebels. The talks aimed to build on the 30 December truce, which was brokered by Ankara and Moscow, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Delegations from armed opposition groups and the Syrian regime were meant to speak directly; however, this failed to materialise. The talks suggest the possibility of a diplomatic resolution for Syria in the future, but one which will favour the regime, and will not totally end the fighting.
The Astana talks highlighted the role of these three regional powers in Syria’s civil war, and the sidelining of the USA and Saudi Arabia; the former was invited as an observer, and the latter not at all. Astana did little to change the situation on the ground as regime forces continue attacking rebel fighters in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, while fighting between rebel groups broke out in Idlib, further weakening the opposition in the face of an assertive regime.
The nature of the Syrian civil war, with the involvement of a number of states supporting a range of actors, and the role of the Islamic State group (IS), has led to the failure of several UN-mandated peace talks. The organisers positioned the Astana talks as a basis for upcoming UN talks in Geneva, intended to cement the ceasefire while establishing a trajectory for future negotiations. The fall of Aleppo in December was a turning point in the conflict, and allowed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, to claim victory and rubbish any attempts to exclude him from any transition process. Since Turkish and Russian support led to Asad’s success in Aleppo, they also took the diplomatic initiative. Their ceasefire deal was signed by Syria and seven major opposition groups. It was active in all areas not under IS control, and excluded UN-designated ‘terrorist’ groups, particularly IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qa'ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). When the parties decided early January that the ceasefire was substantially holding, Russia and Turkey began preparations to host talks between the regime and opposition forces.
Differing expectations of the Astana talks threatened to collapse the dialogue before it has started. Asad expressed hope that the armed rebel groups will disarm in exchange for an amnesty deal. Opposition groups expected to the talks only to strengthen the ceasefire, leaving any discussion of Syria’s political future to Geneva. The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey has been more successful than previous agreements between Russia and the USA, and the organisers hoped that excluding the USA from a pivotal role may invoke greater trust between participants. Washington’s involvement in the Syrian peace process has decreased not only due to Asad’s ascendency with Russian support or Iran wishing to exclude them from the process, but also as Obama’s presidency ended. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also spoke highly of the chance of success due to ‘strong guarantees’ from Moscow, calling the ceasefire a potential starting point for a political process.
Although all opposition groups that had signed the 30 December ceasefire had received invitations to Astana, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger rebel groups, did not attend, citing the fighting in Wadi Barada. The USA had insisted that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, the largest group in the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces) be involved; Moscow remained silent while Ankara refused to consider the inclusion of either the PYD or its armed wing, the YPG, due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The SDF responded by announcing its rejection any decisions that would be made in Astana. Opposition groups are divided, and the loss of eastern Aleppo highlighted their weakened position. Turkey is the opposition’s major state ally; however, Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow forces opposition groups to question the usefulness of a diplomatic route that constrains their offensive options and increases tensions with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The current fighting between Fateh al-Sham and allies against Ahrar al-Sham and allies in Idlib highlights this tension among rebel factions.
The Astana talks were largely unproductive, and their primary impact emerged from discussions on the sidelinesbetween Russia, Turkey and Iran on strengthening the ceasefire. In their agreement to set up a trilateral mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, the parties agreed there could be no military solution in Syria, and that the conflict could only be resolved through compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Neither the Syrian regime nor the rebel delegation appeared satisfied by the outcome of the talks. The opposition protested Iran’s inclusion in monitoring the ceasefire and mediating the conflict, and refused to sign any agreement. The government, meanwhile, announced the continuation of an offensive in Wadi Barada despite the ceasefire and had recaptured all rebel villages within a week.
An agreement to extend the ceasefire is a shaky foundation for the UN-mandated talks in Geneva starting on 20 February. Further, the exclusion of up to two thirds of opposition groups does not provide the rebel delegation with a popular mandate. The exclusion of armed groups with alleged al-Qa'ida links has further divided the opposition while providing the regime with an excuse for violating the ceasefire. Iran’s commitment to the ceasefire is a positive step towards freezing the conflict. Ultimately, it seems that a diplomatic solution is on the horizon, with the main drivers being Russia, Turkey and Iran. It will likely be a resolution that sees the co-option of certain sections of the opposition into the government, and an agreement that Asad will remain in power until the next election, when he will gracefully exit.