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As Israel, Iran square off in Syria, can Russia play peacemaker?

Why We Wrote This

The planned US withdrawal from Syria has both practical and symbolic implications. On the ground, Russia now appears best positioned to resolve disputes in the country, if it is ready to take on the role.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin/AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gestures as Russian President Vladimir Putin listens at a news conference in the Kremlin in Moscow, Jan. 23, 2019. Russia is emerging as the main power broker in Syria as the US plans to withdraw its troops from the country.

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When Russia intervened to tip the Syrian civil war in favor of the Assad regime, it bolstered its strategic weight in the Eastern Mediterranean. And with the United States planning to withdraw most of its troops from Syria, Russia is emerging as the main power in the country. Now it finds itself caught in the middle of a battle between Israel and Iran. Following a dramatic exchange of missile fire last week, Russia was forced into a delicate balancing act, first reprimanding Israel, then voicing support for its security. Last year Russia offered to establish a buffer zone in Syria that would be a no-go zone for Iranian forces. But Israelis have been hesitant to trust Russia. Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says only Israel can protect itself from Iran, but “there are other forces that can affect Iranian considerations in the future.’’ Russia “doesn’t want to see an Iranian conversion of Syria into an Iranian satellite,” he says. “Iranian and Russian interests are not identical…. Whether [Russians] prefer to use the levers they have at their disposal remains to be seen, but they are a strong power in the Middle East.”

The homemade video shows a peaceful scene of skiers coasting down a shimmering snow-covered trail on the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, a towering range that straddles the borders of Syria, Lebanon, and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Suddenly, the camera catches the smoke trails of a pair of Israel’s Iron Dome missiles launching from just below the ski area. The missiles streak across the blue sky to intercept an Iranian surface-to-surface missile fired in retaliation for a pre-dawn Israeli strike on targets near Damascus.

The Jan. 20 footage was a surreal reminder of how Israel and Iran appear to be inching dangerously toward a larger clash over Iran’s military presence in Syria as the civil war there winds down.

The exchange of hostile fire by the two enemies also seemed to pose an urgent question: Who or what can prevent further escalation?

With the United States, Israel’s main ally, withdrawing most of its troops from Syria in the coming months, Russia is emerging as the sole power in the region with enough weight to throw around to stop Israel and Iran from turning Syria into a gridiron, analysts say.

After intervening in Syria in 2015 to tip the balance of the civil war in favor of the Assad regime, Russia has used its involvement to bolster its strategic weight in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria. Though Moscow has so far watched the spat from the sidelines, a wider Israel-Iran conflagration could threaten the gains that it has made in Syria – and prompt Russia to put the brakes on an escalation.

“It’s precarious,’’ says Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, referring to the standoff. “If Iran’s deployments in Syria reached a point where it poses a strategic threat to Israel, or if it drew Israel in to intervene in ways that destabilized the Assad regime, Russia might be motivated to set some limits on one or both sides.”

Russia’s strengthened position in the Middle East comes with a complication: It finds itself caught in the middle of a battle between two regional powers. Tehran played an integral role alongside Moscow in propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the civil war. But its military presence in Syria rattles Israel, which has been waging an increasingly overt campaign against Iran’s forces and its arms shipments to Hezbollah, its Shiite Lebanese partner.

A Russian balancing act

In the aftermath of the exchange, which included a followup Israeli strike around Damascus on Jan. 21 that killed some two dozen military personnel, reportedly including Iranians and Syrians, Moscow’s reaction suggested a balancing act.

After more than a day of silence, Russia condemned Israel for its “arbitrary” attacks in Syria. But then this weekend, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow understands Israel’s need for “strong security” and downplayed Russia’s alliance with Iran.

As the strongest power deployed in Syria, Russia has leverage over both sides. On the one hand, it has deconfliction understandings with Israel that allow the Israeli military to strike at Iran and its allies in Syria. On the other hand, it is an arms supplier to the Iranian military.

Last year Russia offered to establish a buffer zone in southern Syria that would be a no-go zone for Iranian forces. But Israelis have been hesitant to trust Russia with their security.

“Ultimately, only the Israeli Army can protect Israel from Iran’s efforts to undermine its security and threaten its existence; however there are other forces that can affect Iranian considerations in the future,’’ says Dore Gold, the former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and an occasional foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“While Russia is seeking to reestablish the presence it once had in the Eastern Mediterranean during the days of the Soviet Union, it doesn’t want to see an Iranian conversion of Syria into an Iranian satellite. In other words, Iranian and Russian interests are not identical,” he says. “Whether they prefer to use the levers they have at their disposal remains to be seen, but they are a strong power in the Middle East.”

Iranian and Israeli signaling

Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University in Israel, likened the current Israel-Iran clash to Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese civil war in the mid-1970s. At the time, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger mediated understandings between Israel and Syria to avoid an escalation. He says the recent cycle of violence constitutes signaling between Iran and Israel about the rules of the game in Syria.

“Both parties are trying to set the standards and red lines for a postwar reality: how far should Iran go in Syria, how close should it be to the Israeli border, what type of munitions it should have,’’ says Professor Eiran.

“The strongest most efficient power that is on the ground is Russia. The problem with Russia, is that it has its own interests, which may clash with Israel. They have their own agenda, which may coincide with Iran and sometimes doesn’t.’’ Russia and Israel, he says, are “frenemies.”

The US might have been able to restrain an escalation, but President Trump’s planned withdrawal from Syria leaves Washington with more limited options for countering Iran.

That said, the US is reportedly planning to remain at a strategic military outpost near al-Tanf, in southern Syria, on a highway that could serve as a weapons conduit between Iran and Hezbollah.

A role for Europe?

In theory, European countries could serve as another countervailing force against an escalation, analysts say. Germany in particular has experience mediating prisoner swaps between Israel on one side and Hezbollah on the other side.

And by offering aid to ease the humanitarian situation in Syria, the US and European countries have a “carrot” that might encourage the Syrian government to scale back Iran’s influence, says Joel Parker, a fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and Africa Studies at Tel Aviv University.

To be sure, analysts believe that neither Israel nor Iran is interested in a wider confrontation in the medium term. Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu is dogged by corruption allegations and faces an April 9 parliamentary election. Iran, meanwhile, is struggling with economic sanctions and doesn’t want to risk its presence in Syria through a war with Israel.

“Certainly the situation has potential for serious escalation. Having said that, neither side seeks a wider confrontation. Iran’s goals at this stage are to build its capability in Syria, but not necessarily use it now,’’ says former Ambassador Shapiro. “Israel’s goal is to prevent that. To a certain extent, we’ll continue to see these cat-and-mouse games.”

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