Russia and the Israel-Iran Сonflict

After the breakout of the Syrian civil war Syria has become a playground for competition among global and regional powers that are utilizing the weakness of the Syrian state to advance their interests. Syria is presently going through a long and torturous process of stabilization following the success of the Russian intervention in assuring the survival of its Middle Eastern Ally, the Assad regime. This process is not going t o end soon and in itself it augmented and brought to the surface one of this conflicts, the conflict between Israel and Iran. Iran shows extreme hostility towards Israel, whether because of its Islamist ideology or because it is a useful tool in its effort to spread its influence in the Arab Middle East, fortifying its status as a regional power.

As long as Iran intervened in Syria only as part of its support for the regime Israel followed it closely but did not intervene. Once Syria’s stabilization started Iran wished to rip benefits from its support of the Assad regime in the form of military presence in Syria that will serve its strategic interests vis-à-vis Israel. Iran’s direct military strategic capabilities are quite limited. Its air force cannot cope with the Israeli air force and it is dependent on its inventory of longer range heavy missiles that is expensive and limited in numbers. On top of that Israel has a very effective national missile defense system that can deal with that threat. The Iranian military presence in Syria  composed of Iranian military elements and Shiite militias that serve as Iran’s proxies, is supposed to enable Iran to pose direct massive military threat to Israel. Its main elements are supposed to be large numbers of accurate shorter range ballistic missiles, armed UAVs, air force and naval elements, and air defense systems to protect this presence.

Israel is not willing to let this strategic threat be built up gradually in Syria the same way Hezbollah’s huge arsenal of rockets and missiles was built in Lebanon. It is determined to prevent it, and it has adopted a policy of precise air attacks on these elements. Iran is threatening to attack targets in Israel as retaliation. It creates a very fragile situation that can lead to a major escalation and a vaster military conflict between these two parties. This conflict can seriously disrupt the Syrian project in Syria because Syrian military bases in which Iranian elements are deployed are attacked as well as pro-Iranian militias. Sooner or later it will damage substantially the regime’s ability to fight the rebels.

Russia should have a strong motivation to try and mediate between to two adversaries and try to prevent escalation of the conflict. In this sense it is in an excellent situation because it has good relations with the two parties, Iran and Israel. It has a special leverage on Iran especially now when the US president, Trump, decided to exit the nuclear deal with Iran, and Iran hopes that the other powers that concluded the agreement with Iran will keep the agreement alive including its main benefits for Iran. Russia has an important role to play in making it happen. Russia is important to Iran beсause its air power support is essential in the Pro-Iranian military achievements on the ground in Syria, and it is a major supplier of weapons to Iran and a source of political support. The good relationship with Russia is also important to Israel that has a big population that emigrated from Russia and has no interest in friction with this great power.

What Russia should do is mediate an agreement between Israel and Iran on red lines for the Iranian and pro-Iranian presence in Syria. That should relate to two parameters - the distance of these elements from the Israeli border and the types and quantities of weapon systems that will be allowed to be deployed in Syria. It is difficult to assume that Iran will be willing to withdraw completely all Iranian and pro-Iranian elements from Syria. The two parties can determine these redlines based on the principle that what is needed for the domestic fighting within Syria and does not threaten Israel will be allowed to stay. If this mediation will be successful, Russia will be able also to serve later as a channel for dialogue between Israel and Iran also on other subjects aiming at calming down the basic tension between these two major Middle Eastern states.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.