The Western coalition clashed with the regime of Bashar al-Assad following the latter’s alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma, while Israel is waging a campaign against Iranian efforts to build up strategic capabilities in Syria, Valdai Club expert Amos Yadlin writes.
Following Western coalition strikes on Syrian chemical weapons sites and an alleged Israeli attack on Iranian forces, Moscow’s criticism should be directed not at Israel but at its Iranian and Syrian allies for taking unnecessarily provocative and potentially destabilizing actions.
For the sake of clarity in analysis, it is worth disentangling the two events and noting that the Western coalition’s and Israel’s strikes in Syria are not part of the same strategic plan but two altogether separate conflicts. The Western coalition clashed with the regime of Bashar al-Assad following the latter’s alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma, while Israel is waging a campaign against Iranian efforts to build up strategic capabilities in Syria.
As it stands, Russia and Israel have friendly and functional relations and there is no need for the ties to deteriorate following the coalition strike or the attack on the T-4 airbase attributed to Israel. In the past, the leaders of the two countries have sought, and I assess they will continue to seek, a de-confliction arrangement and strategic understandings in which the supreme interests of both parties are protected.
Though Russian and Israeli interests are not identical in the Syrian theater, they are not in direct conflict either. Russia’s major aim in Syria is reaching an agreement that provides political and military stability in the country and preserves the Assad regime. Israel’s goal in Syria is to prevent Iran from realizing its plans to build up extensive military forces, replicate Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria, and deploy Shia militias and advanced weaponry to its newly constructed bases in Syria.
Iran’s construction of bases and advanced weapons factories in Syria in order to threaten Israel does not promote Russian interests. Instead, it risks an Israeli response and a broader escalation without advancing political or military stability in Syria.
Nor does the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons serve the Kremlin’s goals, as using chlorine and nerve gas violated international norms and provoked global powers to take action against the Syrian regime (in which Moscow is invested).
When considering the sheer number of stakeholders in Syria, and the fact that many of them have directly conflicting interests, it is not surprising that Moscow has encountered difficulties in brokering a political settlement thus far. Should additional global and regional parties be provoked to participate in the fighting against Iran and Assad regime, the risk of a major escalation would increase dramatically while the likelihood of a negotiated solution to stabilize Syria would decline.
Based on their responses to recent events in Syria, the pragmatic Sunni Arab leadership would likely support an escalation against Iran or the Assad regime. While Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people was widely condemned by senior officials in the region, those same leaders were noticeably silent in the aftermath of the coalition strike on Assad’s assets and the alleged Israeli attack on Iranian targets — as they have been throughout Israel’s multi-year campaign against Hezbollah and Iran in Syria. Considering the extensive history of regional leaders condemning Israel at nearly every opportunity, the muted responses should be interpreted as tacit support for actions against the Iranian-led axis.
It is not difficult to imagine the Russians using secret channels to press the Assad regime to cease provocations. Nor would it be a stretch to envision Moscow explaining to Teheran that its military entrenchment in Syria aimed at gaining strategic capabilities against Israel risks provoking a conflict that could endanger the campaign to save the Assad regime, a project in which Iran and Russia have invested a great deal of blood and treasure. And Moscow would be would be well-advised to deliver such messages to its allies, as the actions of those states gamble with Russian interests in a manner in which Moscow has much to lose and little to gain.