US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of nearly all US troops from northern Syria has cemented Russia’s status as the predominant global military power actively engaged in the Middle East.
In mid-October, Russian troops arrived at military bases in northern Syria that the American army had hastily left just days earlier, in what can be regarded as both a literal and figurative handover of regional hegemony.
Many officials in Jerusalem are deeply worried about being abandoned by their superpower ally, as the American decision to gradually disengage from this part of the world – which started under former US President Barack Obama – threatens to embolden Israel’s enemies: Iran and its allies and proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere.
What does Russia’s takeover really mean for Israel? Some analysts are deeply concerned, fretting about the possibility that Moscow could use surface-to-air missiles against Israeli jets attacking Iranian targets in Syria, which would effectively end Jerusalem’s campaign against Teheran’s establishment of a military foothold near Israel’s border.
Others see in Russia’s new leadership role an opportunity, as it may make room for an Iranian-Israel modus vivendi that would prevent the shadow war between the two countries from escalating.
To analyse the implications of the new status quo for Israel, it is helpful to understand why Moscow is engaged in the Middle East in the first place, but even on this question experts differ.
Amos Yadlin, the head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told the Times of Israel he counts eight main reasons that “motivated Russian President Vladimir Putin to get involved in the Middle East:
- To “Make Russia Great Again”;
- To again become an influential power, after the US kept it out of Egypt (1973), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process;
- To reduce the influence of the United States;
- To play Middle Eastern cards in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine;
- To control ports and air bases, something the Tsar dreamed of;
- To try out weapons developed by Russia in the past decade;
- To save Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – and show the world that Russians don’t throw their allies under the bus.
- To fight jihadists – in Syria and not in the Caucasus.
While Russia does not necessarily want to act as an “honest broker” between warring parties in the Middle East, it does seek to have good relations with everyone, Yadlin told the Times of Israel.
“All pairs of enemies in the Middle East enjoy reasonably good ties with Russia: Saudi Arabia and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, the Kurds and the Turks, Israel and Iran, Egypt and Turkey, and so on.”
Russia should not be seen as a regional hegemon, Yadlin stressed. Rather, that title should be shared by Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And even the Americans still have more forces in the Middle East than the Russians, said Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence.
“True, the Russians rule over Syria to a great extent, but with all due respect, Syria is not a country of the highest order,” he said. “The Americans have more forces [in the Middle East], though less willingness to use them. The Russian success stems from their ability to use very few forces with determination and rules of engagement that only they can allow themselves, with a veto at the UN Security Council and a patriotic audience at home.”
‘Israel has never been on Putin’s frontal lobe’
Hebrew University history professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen, an expert on Russia, said the main motive behind Russian President Putin’s Middle East engagement is the need to stabilise the Assad regime so that Moscow can maintain its limited military presence in Syria.
“That doesn’t change [now that the Americans are pulling out of Syria]. What has changed are the conditions around it,” he said.
So far, Russia’s actions since the US withdrawal suggest that Putin is still mainly focused on his number one goal: making sure Assad survives. Hence, Moscow is unhappy about the entry of an ambitious regional power – Turkey – into the arena, and will also try to prevent a potential revival of the Islamic State.
“That of course affects Israel, but only indirectly,” Dekel-Chen said. “Israel has never been a priority for Russian actions in Syria. It simply isn’t. There are certainly by-products of Russian policies and actions in Syria for Israel. But it’s never been on the frontal lobe of Putin or anyone else in Syria.”
On the other hand, Israel must come to terms with the fact that the balance of power in the Middle East has fundamentally changed, and it no longer has an ally with boots on the ground in the vicinity, warned Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US.
“I’m concerned. We have relied for the last 45 years on a Pax Americana that no longer exists. I am not saying that the US won’t come to our assistance [in case of war] but we can’t be certain of it anymore,” he told the Times of Israel. “We have to internalise that that’s the situation.”
The United States is an ally; Russia is not, Oren stressed. “It’s useless for us to pretend that Russia is going to be an ally, but we don’t have to make them enemies either. We can reach a modus vivendi with them.”
Ksenia Svetlova, a Moscow-born senior fellow at IPS Institute and at Mitvim, The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said Russia’s new lead position in the region could have “very grave” repercussions for Israel.
“We already have Russian air defence systems, the S-300, that cover the Syrian and Lebanese shores. As soon as the Russians think that it’s smart for them to operate these systems and to halt the Israeli attacks, Israel would no longer be able to deal with the extension of Iranian power in these countries,” she predicted.
The Israeli air force would likewise be prevented from attacking missile factories or weapon shipments in Syria or elsewhere, Svetlova, a former Knesset member for the Zionist Union, said.
Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years against Iran-backed forces in Syria, which are coordinated with Russia.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have developed good working relations with Putin, but that doesn’t mean that the Kremlin will continue to tolerate Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, she went on.
“The Russians are definitely interested in restructuring and rebuilding the Syrian army, which means that the various armed groups there will be gathered under the wing of the Syrian army. And every kind of attack [on Iranian targets in Syria] will be considered an attack against Bashar al-Assad, and that is something the Russians will not accept.”
And it’s not only Syria. Iran, too, is a strategic ally of Russia, Svetlova noted. “And it’s not likely that Moscow will do anything to curb the Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon.”
Trump’s declaration that the US should never have gotten involved in the Middle East thus “poses a great danger for Israel, potentially, and changes the world order, which was American-based, here in the Middle East, into something that is not entirely clear how it will develop.”
A temporary de-facto power-sharing between Iran and Israel?
Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, views this week’s events less dramatically, and even spotted opportunities for a more peaceful region.
“I’d say that this week Russia at most became the sole global power willing to actually use military power in the Middle East and that this might change when President Trump leaves office,” he told the Times of Israel. “Moreover, Russia cannot and will not replace the US economically in the Middle East for a long time: its nominal GDP is a mere 10% that of the US.”
The US withdrawal from Syria may end “Israeli wishful thinking about the US resolving all problems militarily,” Zalzberg went on, which might be good news for everyone.
“Israel faces a somewhat binary choice between a high-risk, self-reliant, mostly militaristic pursuit of its current maximalist objectives,” he said. This includes insisting that Iran must not be allowed to enrich uranium and fully rolling back Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.
America’s pull-out and Russia’s new leadership position might lead Israel to recalibrate its objectives to make them more achievable through diplomacy, Zalzberg posited.
Or, Moscow’s ties with Iran and its proxies could help to reach “some temporary de-facto power-sharing” between Teheran and Jerusalem, “rather than an all-out victory” for either side, he continued.
“Israel can carefully explore whether Russia could help broker an Israeli-Iranian modus vivendi regarding Syria and Lebanon. Moscow’s control over the Syrian airspace makes it the most relevant potential broker,” he said. “Precisely because Russia has a solid relationship both with Iran and Hezbollah, such communication could also explore a non-aggression pact between Israel and Hezbollah.”
According to Maxim Suchkov, a senior fellow at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, Russia entered the Syrian fighting with three primary goals: “propping up the Assad Government, defeating groups it deemed terrorist and breaking through what, by then, was shaping up as the Western isolation of Russia.”
This approach was arguably threats-based, said Suchkov, who edits Al-Monitor’s Russia-Mideast coverage.
“More than three years into the Syria campaign, Assad looks rather stable – perhaps even too much – to the point of Moscow’s occasional irritation. No single terrorist group represents a vital security challenge to either Syria or Russia, and the dynamism of Russia’s bilateral activity with regional actors, not to mention the outreach by many Western states to Moscow, make the ‘isolation’ argument irrelevant.”
Hence, for now, Russia is ready to transform its Middle East policy from the “threats-based” approach to the “opportunities-based” one, Suchkov posited.
“Its image of the new power-broker in the region that effectively offers both off-shore balancing and hedging opportunities enables Moscow to explore an array of venues across the region – be it in the security management domain, or the fields of energy, arms sales or agricultural exports.”
The Russian President and Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu appear to be “on the same page,” Suchkov added.
“They have developed good personal chemistry and seem to have the knack for engaging in interests without exposing their metagame.” And that metagame, he specified, “is how Bibi [Netanyahu] uses his relationship with Putin to advance his own political standing in Israeli domestic politics, and how Putin uses Bibi to project the image of a powerful regional broker.”