Russian President Vladimir Putin is working on what sounds to Israelis like science fiction but in Moscow makes perfect sense – a deal on the power structure in Syria that both Israel and Iran can live with.
Two years after Russian warplanes began landing in Khmeimim air base, carrying out devastating bombing missions on rebel-held parts of Syria and killing thousands of civilians, along with rebel fighters opposed to President Bashar Assad’s regime and Islamic State fighters, Putin now controls Syria’s future.
The Obama administration was unwilling to play a major role in Syria and the Trump administration has yet to formulate a clear regional policy – and Russia has filled the vacuum.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realized early on that Putin was determined to play a pivotal role in Syria, and flew to Moscow to meet with him in September 2015. As a result of that meeting, a “deconfliction mechanism” was established between the Israeli and Russian air forces, including a hotline installed between the Russian operations center and Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Israel has continued carrying out airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in Syria [according to foreign media reports], including within the area dominated by Russian air power, without any official response from the Kremlin. Netanyahu and Putin have continued meeting every few months and speaking frequently by telephone.
At the same time, Russia has worked together with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, and they have supplied thousands of fighters on the ground for Assad’s regime.
“Putin doesn’t want to lose Iran or Israel,” said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council – an influential think tank in Moscow that was established by the president’s office six years ago. “There is mutual respect between [Putin] and Netanyahu, and Russia has a special attitude toward Israel’s military activity in Syria and has warned Assad and Hezbollah not to retaliate,” he added.
Kortunov was a speaker at the annual conference of Kiev’s Yalta European Strategy forum last week, representing Russian positions.
He highlighted the way Putin recently brought Iran and Turkey together in the Syrian cease-fire talks in Astana. Now Turkey is willing to contemplate Assad’s regime reestablishing itself across Syria and is cooperating with Iran in various spheres – including against Kurdish attempts to gain independence from Iraq.
Russia has also engaged with Jordan and the Saudis in an effort to get them to end their support for the Syrian rebels. Now Putin believes he can broker an agreement between Israel and Iran.
There are those within the Israeli security establishment and intelligence community who believe a wedge can be driven between Russia and Iran, and have been advising Netanyahu to try and orchestrate one in his dealings with Putin. Netanyahu, of course, wants to believe he is capable of doing so, but that is totally unrealistic.
“Iran has supplied Putin with boots on the ground in Syria,” said one Western diplomat who has spent years working with the Russians. “Putin isn’t just going to give up on that.”
A veteran journalist based in Moscow explained that “thanks to the Iranians, the Russians have been able to operate in Syria with few casualties of their own. This has kept the Syrian campaign popular among the Russian public.”
There are some discordant notes in the Russian-Iranian relationship. Putin doesn’t want to be seen by the Sunni majority in the Middle East – as well as Russia’s millions of Sunni Muslim citizens – as enabling the Iranians to build a “Shia crescent” across the region. And Moscow has refused Iranian demands to share the naval port of Tartus, currently being used by Russia.
The Syrian and Russian governments have yet to sign a long-term agreement for Russian control of the port (a similar deal has already been signed for Khmeimim air base, near Latakia) due to Iranian pressure on Assad to allow it a presence there as well.
In a number of cases in recent months, Russia refused to help Iranian-backed forces in the Euphrates Valley, eastern Syria, when they clashed with Kurdish fighters supported by the United States and came under fire from U.S. aircraft. But the fact that Russian and Iranian interests don’t always coincide and that, historically, Russia and Iran have been geopolitical rivals going back decades doesn’t mean the Kremlin is going to ditch its current alliance with Iran anytime soon.
According to well-placed sources in Moscow, Putin is planning to propose a formula to Netanyahu whereby no foreign country will be allowed to turn Syria into a platform for attacking neighboring states. This won’t go as far as Netanyahu’s insistence that Iran be prevented from establishing a permanent presence in Syria. If enforced, though, it would prevent them from establishing air and missile bases there. Netanyahu is unlikely to accept such a formula in public, but he is unlikely to have much of a choice.
Putin may respect Netanyahu and Israel’s military capabilities, and he continues to turn a blind eye toward Israel’s reported bombing operations in Syria, but he isn’t about to give up his Iranian boots on the ground.