The Limits of Cooperation Between Russia and Israel Over Iran’s Foothold in Syria

World Politics Review, 01.08.2018
Emily Burchfield, directora asistente (Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East)

An Israeli soldier guides a mobile artillery piece near the border with Syria in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights (AP/Ariel Schalit).

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a surprise visit to Israel last week for talks about Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. The negotiations came amid heightened tensions along Syria’s southern border with Israel, where the Assad regime’s recent offensive to retake lost territory from rebels renewed conflict in an area that had been protected by a 2017 cease-fire agreement guaranteed by Russia, Jordan and the United States. The fighting raises concerns about the proximity of Iranian-backed forces, including Hezbollah, to northern Israel. In response to this threat, Israel launched a series of attacks on Iranian targets within Syria, including the bombing of a military site used by Iranians to manufacture missiles.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel will continue to act against Iran’s interests in the region, and said he would even accept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continued hold on power if Russia can “get the Iranians out.” The day after Israeli-Russian talks began, however, Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet it said was violating its airspace, drawing condemnation from the Assad regime and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The episode highlights the risk of spiraling escalation in this small stretch of territory, and the divergent goals of Russia and Israel in Syria, where Iran could be the spoiler for any potential long-term cooperation.

During last week’s talks, Russia reportedly agreed to remove Iranian troops from the border region and proposed a 100-kilometer buffer between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Iranian forces. Netanyahu immediately rejected the proposal, reportedly telling Lavrov, “We will not allow the Iranians to establish themselves even 100 kilometers from the border.” Therein lies the problem with Russian-Israeli rapprochement on Syria: Israel ultimately wants the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria, an objective Russia cannot secure. Russia has warned that it is unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country, and earlier this week stated publicly that it cannot compel such an outcome. Russia has attempted to appease Israel with solutions focusing on the border area, but even those have fallen short.

During a flurry of diplomacy earlier in July, Russian diplomats told Netanyahu that Iranian forces had been pushed “tens of kilometers” away from the Israeli border. But the nature of Iran’s involvement in Syria makes that claim difficult to verify. Iran has used proxies—a network of local and foreign Shiite militias—to pursue its security interests in Syria, which go beyond just keeping Assad in power. It has reportedly deployed these proxies to southern Syria, where they have been documented switching attire to blend in with Assad’s forces. Distinguishing Iranian proxies from other, pro-Assad militias and Syrian soldiers is further complicated by the diversity of uniforms worn in Syria.

In addition to these logistical challenges, it is doubtful that Russia has any meaningful influence, let alone control over Iran or its proxies, whose mission in Syria—projecting Iranian power, protecting the supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon—is more important than avoiding friction with Tehran’s tactical ally, Russia. Indeed, Iranian officials flat-out rejected Putin’s recent statement that all foreign forces must eventually leave Syria. Finally, Russia has repeatedly failed to uphold international agreements it is party to in Syria—its violation of the southern cease-fire being the most recent—and there is no indication that an agreement with Israel would have different results.

Russia’s shortcomings as an arbiter in Syria stem from the fact that it appears to value projecting diplomatic power over actually resolving conflicts. Aside from maintaining its access to the Mediterranean via Syria’s two major ports in Latakia and Tartous and safeguarding its military bases there, Russia’s strategic interests in Syria include weakening U.S. influence and portraying itself as the greatest power broker in the country, and the region at large. For this reason, Russia’s actions often pursue short-term goals aimed at mediating the conflict rather than resolving it, leading to unlikely alliances and broken promises.

Russia’s cooperation with Israel over Iran’s presence in Syria is one such short-term goal. Russia may not be terribly attached to Iran’s entrenchment and certainly does not want a regional escalation over it, but possesses neither the will nor the power to diminish it. Israel and Iran, however, are not as detached from the issue.

Iran has spent years—in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of lives—building up its proxy forces in Syria. Safeguarding Syria as an anchor of Iran’s “axis of resistance,” a deterrent against perceived U.S. and Israeli designs against the country, is a strategic priority for Iranian leaders. As such, that goal takes precedence over Tehran’s relationship with Moscow, and means that Russian attempts to sway Iran on behalf of Israel are unlikely to gain ground.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly stated that their ultimate goal in Syria is a complete removal of all Iranian forces. Israel maintains that it has not intervened in the Syrian war except in self-defense and by extension to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent foothold there, which it views as a critical security threat. Israel has acknowledged over 100 strikes on Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria, but recently the pace of exchanges between Israel and Syria has accelerated as the Assad regime’s offensive pushes closer to its borders. In May, after Iranian forces fired rockets at the Golan Heights, Israel destroyed dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, along with Syrian anti-aircraft units. Just last week, Syrian missiles triggered Israel’s new missile defense system, known as David’s Sling, for the first time. With Assad’s forces reclaimingcontrol of the border area along the Golan Heights earlier this week, such exchanges will likely continue.

While much has been made of the apparently burgeoning cooperation between Israel and Russia over Syria, Israel’s increasingly frequent unilateral actions in Syria demonstrate that Israeli leaders are aware of the limits of its diplomacy with Moscow. Israel may continue to target Iranian and Iranian-backed forces across Syria as Syrian forces and Iranian proxies draw closer to the border or entrench themselves around it, risking retaliation that could inadvertently escalate into open conflict, further destabilizing the region. Alternatively, Iran could lie low to avoid a confrontation that would likely draw in greater military powers, even the United States, and instead focus on quietly consolidating its power, as it did in Lebanon after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Whatever happens, there’s little chance that Iranian forces will leave Syria, so the tensions over how close they are to Israel’s border will only grow.

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