Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia for discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As Putin noted in the leaders’ joint press conference, Israel and Russia have “established very close and very confidential contact” in recent years and the two leaders “meet on a regular basis and are constantly in touch by telephone”. This visit came against the backdrop of an increased Russian presence throughout the region.
Russia’s regional assertiveness
A number of commentators argue that in recent times Russia has developed a Middle East policy that seeks to entrench a long-term Russian presence in the region. On this view, Russian involvement in the Syrian crisis is but one part of a framework whereby Russia is actively seeking to reclaim its Cold War status as a powerful regional influence, and to deliberately undercut US relationships in the region.
Aside from Russian involvement in Syria, analysts point to Russia’s improved ties with Egypt and Turkey. In Egypt, Russia has taken advantage of America’s withdrawal from the country in the aftermath of President al-Sisi’s takeover in 2014, and signed the first major arms deal with Egypt since the Cold War. More recently, Egypt-Russia ties are warming in light of alleged Egyptian concerns regarding the growth of US isolationism which may “adversely affect their annual $1.3 billion allotment in American military aid”.
Similarly, Russia’s relationship with Turkey is now said to be improving because of increased frustration with the hesitant US approach to the Syrian civil war and its insistence on Assad’s removal. As such, Erdogan and Putin have recently brokered a ceasefire in Syria, with no role whatsoever for the US. This is despite the souring of Turkey-Russia relations in 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian jet.
Aside from Egypt and Turkey, Russia is now taking on an increased role in the Libyan conflict.
Put together then, Russia’s efforts throughout the region are seen as evidence of a desire to reassert Russia’s role as a regional superpower.
However, not everyone shares this view. Some scholars argue that Russian actions in the Middle East are pragmatic responses where particular Russian interests were at stake, while others see Russian policy as a pushback and response to Western encroachment.
But even on this view, it is undisputed that Russia has taken on a greater and more active role in the Middle East in recent years. For Israel then, Russia cannot be seen as a peripheral player in the region.
The Russia-Iran axis
The role of Russia vis-à-vis Israel is perhaps most acutely significant in regards to Russia’s cooperation with Iran. For Israel, the possibility of a permanent Iranian presence on its Syrian border, with Russian support, is a major point of concern. As Netanyahu stated at the start of his meeting with Putin:
“…One of the things that we are fighting together is radical Islamic terrorism. Of course, in the past year there was significant progress in the fight against the radical Sunni Islamic terrorism led by Daesh and al-Qaeda; Russia has made a very important contribution. Naturally, we do not want this terrorism to be replaced by the radical Shi’ite Islamic terrorism led by Iran.”
As Amos Harel argues, these concerns have been magnified by a number of recent developments. Iran is purportedly engaging in talks with the Syrian regime for a 50-year lease of land to establish an Iranian port, similar to Russia’s naval base in Tartus. In addition, the expulsion of Islamic State fighters from Mosul, will “make it possible to create a contiguous swath of Iranian-Shi’ite influence on the ground from Tehran, through Mosul to Damascus, and on to Bekaa and Beirut in Lebanon.” This comes at the same time that Iran has built munitions factories in Lebanon, which eliminates the need to export weapons though the region. This also comes on the heels of a newly established Iran-funded Hezbollah “brigade” which aims to “liberate” the Golan Heights from Israel.
For its part, Russia has not stated what will happen to the Iranian presence in Syria after the conflict subsides, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has stated that any decision regarding the withdrawal of Iranian forces should rest with Syria. According to some commentators, Russia’s ambivalent stance is an acknowledgment that Iran has in some respects played a far greater role in supporting the Assad regime than Russia itself.
However, as Jonathan Spyer points out, Iran’s goals in the region are not the same as Russia’s. Iran wants “total victory, the reunification of Syria under Assad’s nominal control, and the emergence of the Iran led Shi’a militias as the key power-holders in Iraq”. In contrast, Russia has far more limited goals, focused on securing its naval assets in the Mediterranean and securing its position as a powerful player in the “subsequent frozen or semi-frozen conflict”.
For Israel then, the goal is to widen the gap between Iran and Russia as much as possible and to make clear to Russia that it will not tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria. Interestingly, the Russian media outlet Vzglyad has recently reported a number of areas where Russia-Iran tensions may now be opening up.
In February, Russia cancelled a visit by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to Iran, ostensibly for a breach in security by Iran: “while Russia requested confidentiality, Iran disclosed the information about Rogozin’s visit”. Moreover, according to some reports, the purpose of the visit itself was to discuss Russia’s displeasure with Iran’s acquisition of technologies from countries that imposed sanctions on Russia, and for neglecting trade with Russia. In December last year, the state-owned Iran Air signed USD$30 billion worth of contracts with Boeing and AirBus. By comparison, Russia’s Sukhoi Civil Aircraft signed a memorandum of understanding to supply one of Iran’s airlines with the Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet 100, but “the document is not binding”, and “Russian experts believe the Iranian market can accommodate 100 such planes.”
In addition, Russia-Iran relations are also said to be straining as a result of the new Trump Administration. In contrast to the Obama Administration’s attempts at establishing a positive rapport with Iran, the new Administration has made clear its disdain for Iran’s “bad behavior”. For Moscow, this means that supporting Iran now only exacerbates its already strained relationship with Washington. Although Iran may provide Moscow with useful leverage against Western pressure, this also means that Iran is now reduced to a Russian bargaining chip.
Moreover, according to reports from Syrian opposition forces, there have been clashes on the ground between Syria and Iran over the ceasefires that Russia brokered in coordination with Turkey. In addition, on 7 March 2017, “the chiefs of staff of the US, Russian, and Turkish militaries met in Antalya, Turkey to discuss security problems in Syria and Iraq”. Following this, “the Iran Diplomacy website, which is close to Iranian Foreign Ministry circles, wrote that Iran is in a state of shock” that it was not invited to participate.
Russia and Israel
According to Russian scholar Dmitry Maryasis, there is a “recent trend in Russia… to consider itself a potential major partner to Israel”. Maryasis argues that Russia understands Israel’s apprehension towards Iran and that Israel would not tolerate the presence of Shi’ite militias. Russia also believes that although Israel-Saudi ties may have slightly warmed recently, “the Saudis are a very conservative state that tends to support fundamental Islam all over the world” and therefore “their ‘positive inclination’ toward Israel is more of a tactical move than a real desire to build working relations with the Jewish state”.
It is also worth noting that despite Israel’s extremely close relationship with the US, it has on a number of recent occasions signalled a desire for closer relations with Moscow. Israel chose to be absent at a high profile UN General Assembly vote on Ukraine’s territorial integrity in 2014, and skipped a vote on enabling investigations of war crimes in Syria.
Prior to travelling to Moscow, Netanyahu stated that his purpose in visiting Putin was to discuss “current efforts to put together new arrangements in Syria” and to “express fierce opposition” to “an Iranian effort to become firmly established on a permanent basis in Syria”. As the conflict in Syria now grinds towards a protracted and grisly finale, Israel’s challenge is to contend with the new realities of its region – this time with a Russian flourish.
Image source: Ria-Novosti via Associated Press