The Russian-Israeli relations are inherently unstable, as each party aims to attain its own economic, political and security interests. Those interests converge at times and diverge at others. However, the Russian-Israeli relations have recently witnessed greater rapprochement with regards to the Syrian dossier, especially concerning the Iranian presence in Syria and the Golan. This is evidenced by the statements of President Donald Trump at the Helsinki Summit with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who declared that “Russia supports Israel as the United States does.” The Russian-Israeli rapprochement comes against the backdrop of mounting fears that Tehran will reposition and redeploy near the Israeli border. It is argued that Iran aims to exert pressure on Israel through threatening its strategic depth.
In this vein, the Russian-Israeli relations cannot be developed, with regard to Syria, without conflicting with the Iranian interests, of which Israel is the first enemy. The following are indications of the Russian-Israeli rapprochement and its implications on the Iranian presence.
Many regional and international indicators reinforce the same idea of undermining Iran’s moves in Syria in particular and the region in general, the most important of which are as follows:
1- De-escalation Zones: The Astana Agreement on de-escalation zones signed on May 4, 2017, was followed by a Russian-Israeli understanding on the Iranian presence in southern Syria. The matter became evident by Moscow’s statement that it wanted to ensure that Tel Aviv was protected from the Iranian threat from the Golan, which would in turn create considerable difficulties for the Iranian presence there. Hours after the declaration of a settlement agreement for Quneitra Governorate, on July 20, 2018, the Syrian regime was able to completely restore southern Syria, except for a small enclave under ISIS control. Thus, Moscow sought to reassure Tel-Aviv and Washington by removing the threat of Iranian presence in the area. This comes at a time of escalating confrontation between Ankara and Tehran about the fate of Idlib Governorate (northern Syria), which is part of the de-escalation agreement between the two countries and Russia, ahead of the Astana 10 meeting, scheduled to take place in the Russian resort of Sochi in late July 2018.
2- Rolling Back Iran’s Role in Syria: Moscow and Tel Aviv agree on the neutralization of Iran’s role in Syria, particularly removing the Iranian presence form the areas close to the Israeli border. In this regard, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on May 28, 2018 that the only military presence to be allowed in southern Syria will be the Syrian regular army, under the Israeli agreement with Russia, the Syrian regime’s first and staunchest ally, to keep Tehran at bay from the northern Israeli borders.
3- Reciprocal Military Operations: The Iranian-Israeli conflict in Syria has flared up to the point of launching military strikes by the two parties. On February 10, 2018, the Israeli army shot down an Iranian-made drone. A day earlier, Israel targeted the T-4 Air Base, killing several members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Since late January 2013 until early February 2018, Israel has attacked several Iranian positions near its border with the Syrian Golan, with a total of 11 attacks.
4- The US Pressure on Iran: The US unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement on May 8, 2018, and the re-imposition of economic and military sanctions on Tehran and its allies, constitute immense pressure on Iran, in a bid to curb and curtail the Iranian role in the region. In this respect, Israel is trying to extract an American recognition of Tel Aviv’s sovereignty over the Golan, which is in line with Israel’s conviction that its control over the Golan must be the only option. Israel considers the Golan a vital depth of its security, and hence will not let Iran and other extremist Islamist groups control it.
Russia and the Israeli-Iranian Equation
Russia is the main player in the Syrian dossier and has alone the full capacity to change and alter roles in favor of what suits its vital interests, especially since Iran is a guaranteed ally of Russia, sharing common views on many regional and international issues.
Given Russia’s recognition of the importance of the Golan for the two countries, Russian policy runs contrary to the Iran’s in Syria, particularly the Golan. Tehran seeks to maintain an advanced military position against Israel. The existence of any international or regional understanding that would remove Iran from this region will constitute a setback in its influence, will affect the future of its role in Syria, and the long-term plans for the value of its strategic investments there. Yet, Russia has moved towards rapprochement with Israel without regard for the Iranian interests this time. This convergence holds benefits for Russia and Israel, which can be outlined as follows:
1- Reinforcing the centrality of the Russian role amid the diminishing role of the US in the Syrian conflict. This in turn bolsters the Russian presence on the international scene and discourages US efforts to be isolated.
2- Participating in the security arrangements in Syria: Israel is well aware that it cannot influence the Syrian situation unless it gets green light from Russia. Therefore, Tel Aviv has improved its relations with Moscow and attempted to suggest that the strikes against Iran in Syria were carried out with a Russian green light, especially since some of these strikes were conducted after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow. Israel has only Moscow to ensure its security through keeping Iran and Hezbollah away from its borders. Currently, Russia says there is a need to remove foreign troops from Syria, in a reference to Iranian militias, Hezbollah and the US.
3- The diminishing betting on the US: The betting on the Russian role has risen after the chances of toppling the Syrian regime have diminished, as Tel Aviv is well aware that Washington plans to overthrow the regime have receded. Moreover, the conflicting US statements of staying or withdrawing from Syria have made counting on the US to roll back Iran’s influence a risky strategy.
4- Ridding Syria of terrorists: The Assad regime, backed by Russia, seeks to rid southern Syria of terrorist groups, as well as areas near the Israeli-Syrian border, which requires security coordination with Israel. The reports that Russia uses the Israeli airspace to carry out military strikes in Syria may reinforce this point.
5- Attempts to influence the Russian position: Tel Aviv is pushing Moscow not to hand over Syria the S-300 air defense systems, because the acquisition of that system by Damascus would limit Israel’s ability to carry out air strikes on Syria.
Despite the Russian-Israeli rapprochement, this convergence may hit many obstacles. And it may continue in the long run if there is a conductive regional and international environment. The following are the most likely scenarios for the future of this relationship:
1- Cautious convergence: When considering the nature of the Russian and Israeli interests in the region with a broader perspective, it appears that Russia and Israel recognize their respective capabilities to serve the interests of each other. They are based on their mutual positions and will remain an indicator and manifestation of the pattern of Russian-Israeli relations. If the conflicts in the Middle East continue to escalate crises, Russia and Israel will find themselves at some point at opposite poles.
2- Collision and complication: This scenario represents an advanced stage of international pressures, particularly from the US and European countries; the increased tension in the Russian-American relations and the Russian-European relations will exacerbate pressures on Israel. Thus, Israel will find itself in a political impasse, forcing it to constantly correct its policy and reconsider its relations with Putin’s regime, which raises the chances of a permanent defiance.
In conclusion, it can be argued that although the Russian-Israeli security understandings, following the Russian intervention in Syria, were surprising to all, including the Israelis, they reflect mutual interests and could be tactical to both parties. Golan represents a golden opportunity for Iran to preserve its gains in Syria on the one hand, and to continue to threaten Israel and maintain its ultimate trump card against the US on the other hand. Despite Iran’s attempts to control this region, all indicators reveal that this is impossible in the long run, as the Russian-Israeli rapprochement runs contrary to Iranian interests. Although there are differences- rather than disagreements- between Moscow and Tehran on some issues, their relations have grown tremendously in the recent period. The Iranian foreign policy in the region is an Iranian affair that does not bind Moscow and its policy imperatives in the region do not oblige Tehran. Yet, the intersection of interests between the two sides is mainly on Syria.