Newly re-elected President Vladimir Putin is angling to boost Russia’s already considerable clout in the Middle East by intensifying his country’s engagement in Syria. This development came into the spotlight on April 9, when Israel reportedly attacked an Iranian/Syrian airbase (known as “T4”), from which Tehran had launched a drone loaded with explosives that brazenly and illegally violated Israel’s airspace two months prior.
Jerusalem apparently had bombed T4 to destroy a major, new Iranian military capability that could have limited Israel’s ability to operate above Syria. In the past, Russia had not commented on Israeli attacks on Iranian, Syrian or Hezbollah assets in Syria. This time, however—and even though there were no Russian casualties—Moscow roundly condemned Jerusalem’s defensive move, a sure sign that the Kremlin wants to increase its role as a major regional military power.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a serious rival to the United States for regional supremacy. It severed diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War and was the chief political backer and arms supplier to the “front-line states” Egypt and Syria in their wars against the Jewish state. Moscow, however, reestablished ties with Jerusalem after the Soviet Union collapsed and even sustained a period of warm relations with Israel during the late 1990s and early 2000s, due in part to the large number of ex-Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel then.
Under Putin, Russia is again taking steps to strengthen its influence in the Middle East. Russia—unlike the Soviet Union—is not overtly hostile to Israel; Putin is acting in what he considers to be Russia’s national interest with few, if any, ideological signposts or concerns about freedom and democracy. Russia’s actions in the region are nevertheless threatening Israel’s security by helping to foster an aggressive Iranian and Hezbollah presence on Israel’s northern border. Putin’s motives for meddling in the region remain strong:
Strengthening his domestic image: Putin uses foreign adventurism to distract public attention from a floundering economy, growing poverty and political discontent, as well as to highlight Russia’s claims to have recovered its great-power status. Russians are impressed with their military achievements in Syria and with their country’s political role as the only power with good ties to all major regional players: Iran, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Challenging America, bolstering Iran: Putin damages U.S. prestige by projecting power to and acting strategically within a non-European region that America has long dominated. The Kremlin can also plausibly claim to have rescued Damascus—a long-time Russian client—from defeat, while helping its newer ally Tehran achieve its ambitious “Tehran to Beirut” land bridge, strengthening Hezbollah and asserting itself in Syria. Even long-time U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia recognize this achievement: In October 2017, Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became the first Saudi monarch ever to visit Moscow.
Increasing Russian exports and foreign investment: Iran, Turkey and Egypt are purchasing Russian arms that are battled-tested in Syria and sold with no human-rights strings attached; the region now accounts for more than a third of all Russian arms exports. Russia’s sovereign wealth fund has entered into co-investment deals with many Arab Gulf states to make equity investments in the Russian economy. Moscow is also working closely with both Riyadh and Tehran to bolster oil prices, and Russian companies are helping Iran, Syria and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government improve their energy infrastructures.
Protecting Russia from Sunni Jihadism: Russia aims to establish good relations with most states and groups in the region except for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and al-Qaeda. With a Muslim—mostly Sunni—population that is 15 percent and growing, Russia views fighting Sunni extremism in Syria as preventative counterterrorism, which may impede Jihadism from taking hold at home—even if that means risking association with Iranian Shia extremism to do so.
Working with Iran in Syria
The Kremlin’s main ally in the region is Iran, with which it is collaborating to protect the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Analysts of the Syrian conflict often assert that rupturing this de facto Iran-Russia alliance will empower Moscow and Damascus over Tehran and reduce the threat from Syria to U.S. and Israeli interests. Proponents argue that Moscow and Tehran form an odd couple whose “marriage” is ripe for divorce: Russia is a realist, opportunist power with limited regional goals; Iran is a messianic-revolutionary state bent on destroying Israel and driving the U.S. out of the Middle East.
The Kremlin, however, shows no sign of splitting with Tehran over their disparate long-term goals in Syria and beyond. Both powers want—for now—to keep Assad in power, defeat the remaining rebels (Jihadists, moderates and Kurds), and limit Washington’s role in postwar reconstruction. Moscow does not buy into Iran’s and Hezbollah’s ongoing war against the Jewish state, but neither is it prepared to jeopardize the most extensive partnership it has enjoyed in the Middle East since the Soviet Union collaborated with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s up to fall 1970.
Moreover, Moscow lacks the means to constrain Tehran in Syria. Putin has sought to obtain maximum advantage from a minimal investment in Syria. Russia has not flooded the country with personnel or materiel: Russia’s presence in Syria has never exceeded roughly 50 combat aircraft, 40 helicopters and 3,000 ground troops. This is many times smaller than the Soviet Union’s disastrous investment in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the cost and failure of which helped bring down the Soviet Union. Moscow has lost very few aircraft in Syria and most of its soldiers have trained, rather than led, Syrian fighters, keeping casualties at an acceptable level—resulting in much of the campaign’s popularity in Russia.
These modest investments have enabled Putin to do Assad’s heavy lifting and send a message around the region that Russia stands with its friends. Already, Russia has obtained a 49-year lease on the Tartus naval facility, which is being upgraded into a full service naval base, and it has an open-ended agreement with Damascus to occupy the air base at Khmeimim. Moreover, Syria has become a showcase for Russian weapon systems and the efficacy of the Russian military, further burnishing Moscow’s regional standing. This “light footprint” approach, however, also limits Russia’s military options in Syria. Moscow relies on an Iranian “Shia foreign legion,” led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and consisting of Iranian troops, Hezbollah and Shia volunteers from as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan, to defeat the rebels on the ground and to occupy and hold “liberated” Syrian territory. Without this Iranian-controlled ground force—which former U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said accounts for 80 percent of the combat-ready, pro-Assad troops in Syria—Damascus would be hard-pressed to retain the parts of Syria it now controls, much less reconquer the remainder.
Moscow does not want to expend the blood or treasure that would be required to replace Iran as Assad’s primary protector. Indeed, in February, U.S. aerial strikes killed hundreds of pro-Assad troops—including scores of Russians—who were attacking an Arab-Kurdish position in eastern Syria. Luckily for Putin, the Russian victims were mercenaries, not regulars. But the incident illustrates precisely why the Kremlin maintains its light footprint in Syria, even at the cost of ceding control to Iranian forces in most of the country—including the southwest corner adjacent to Jordan, Israel and the Golan Heights.
Russia’s intervention in Syria, while not aimed at the Jewish state, has nevertheless placed Israel in an uncomfortable position on its northern front:
It has enabled Hezbollah and Iran, Israel’s strongest and most determined enemies, to expand their operations from Lebanon and north-central Syria to the southwest, where they are trying to establish an offensive military infrastructure near the Golan Heights.
It has constrained Israel’s freedom of military maneuver by installing the advanced S-400 air- and missile-defense system to protect Russian bases in northern Syria. An Israeli Defense official was speaking only partly in jest when he recently observed that “a fly can’t buzz above Syria without Russian consent nowadays.”
It has helped lay the groundwork for Iranian-led forces eventually to reconquer the third of Syria currently governed by a coalition of U.S.-trained-and-supported Kurds and Arabs, which would remove the last obstacle to Iran’s and Hezbollah’s goal of a “land bridge” from Tehran to Beirut, via Iraq and Syria.
For now, Israel relies on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s frequent communications with Putin (they have met nine times since 2009) and various deconfliction measures (e.g., a hot-line between Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Headquarters and Russia’s Khmeimim airbase) implemented by their respective militaries to prevent a major Israeli-Russian clash in Syria. The effectiveness of these measures may be dwindling, however. Although Russia reportedly withdrew its personnel in a timely fashion from the Syrian air-defense sites that Israel bombed in February, Moscow accused Jerusalem of not giving adequate warning before Israel’s most recent alleged attack—a charge that Israel has publicly rejected. Beyond these minimal goals of deconfliction, however, Russia has repeatedly rebuffed Israeli requests that it remonstrate with Tehran about the importance of Israel’s three “red lines” in Syria: (1) no permanent Iranian military presence; (2) no Iranian or Iranian-affiliated military forces within (ideally) 25 miles (40 kilometers) of the Golan Heights (sometimes referred to as a “buffer zone”); and (3) no transfer or local production of game-changing “strategic” weapons to Hezbollah or Syria.
Putin is determined to bolster Russian power in the Middle East—politically, commercially and militarily. The Kremlin almost certainly assesses that its relatively modest investment in the region has significantly paid off in greater Russian prestige and enhanced influence for its partners Tehran and Damascus. Moreover, Moscow may be trying to expand its military presence outside Syria; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Russia would like to mediate in the Libyan civil war and some have suggested that it is seeking berthing rights and other privileges there and throughout North Africa.
For Washington and Jerusalem, the most important objective is containing—and ideally rolling back—the spread of Iran’s military and political power to the north of Israel facilitated by Russian intervention. Whether inadvertently or by design, Moscow has unleashed a dynamic in which Iran and Hezbollah can directly threaten Israel militarily while chipping away at U.S. credibility in the region. Washington must work closely with Jerusalem to assure, at a minimum, that Israel has the resources to meet this challenge.
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