Will Putin sell Iran out?

Will Putin sell Iran out?

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) conducted several strikes inside Syria on March 16, prompting Syrian forces to retaliate with ground-to-air missiles. 

It was one of the most serious incidents to occur between the two countries since Syria’s war erupted in 2011. The fact that Israel’s attack came in the aftermath of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow last week to discuss Iran’s entrenchment in Syria suggests Israel might be taking security into its own hands once again. 

Israeli officials have long expressed concern about the emergence of an anti-Israeli front in southern Syria led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, alongside Hezbollah forces and local Druze. Since the onset of the war, Israel’s main objective has been to contain Iranian influence. Therefore, the IDF has reportedly targeted convoys, military caches and operational bases in southern Syria several times in the past so as to sever the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s logistics route, which stretches from the Golan Heights to Lebanon.

However, what brought Netanyahu to the Kremlin were two important developments: 

1) Iran was planning to acquire a permanent military base in Latakia; 

2) A new unit of the Hezbollah forces has been established under the name of the Golan Liberation Brigades to liberate the Golan Heights from Israel.

Both of these developments are regarded as red lines by Israel.

Limits to Kremlin’s influence over Syria

In this respect, Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss these sensitive topics. Some interpreted this visit as a tactical move to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran. The critical issue here, however, is how much Russia can actually deliver to Israel in terms of both intention and capacity.

Russia and Israel have enjoyed rather cordial relations in the course of the Syrian war, respecting each other’s strategic interests. That is why, immediately after Russia set foot in Syria, the two countries agreed to establish military coordination to avoid confrontation in Syria’s airspace. In other words, Russia preferred to turn a blind eye to Israel’s periodic air strikes on Hezbollah forces. 

But when it comes to thwarting Iran’s attempts to cement its military position in Syria, there might be limits to Kremlin’s influence over the Syrian regime.

“Any decision on the withdrawal of Iranian forces would rest with Syrian leaders,” said Russian Deputy Foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov. 

Again this week, on the sidelines of the third round of the Astana peace talks, Iran signed a document to become a guarantor for an agreement on Syria, joining Russia and Turkey.

Even though Russia has avoided clashing directly with Israel, it won’t be easy for Russia sell out Iran on Syria.

It’s true, Russia and Iran have historically been rivals. However, they have forged an alliance in the Middle East based on their mutual dissent toward the U.S.-led liberal order and their shared interest in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. Indeed, it was Iran that urged Russia to intervene in Syria. Both countries invested heavily, in economic and military terms, to prop up the al-Assad regime; they ultimately succeeded due to Iranian ground forces backed by Russian air strikes. 

Iran’s plans regarding the Golan Heights

Aside from their shared interests in Syria, the arms deals between the two countries continue to fill Russia’s coffers while upgrading Iran’s aging conventional military.

Iran’s plans regarding the Golan Heights is doubtlessly designed to provoke Israel into attacking. In the case of a new round of war in Lebanon, it might even undermine the de facto coalition between the Arab countries and Israel.

On the one hand, the United States is exploring the feasibility of an anti-Iran front through the establishment of an Arab NATO. However, pursuing a foreign policy that so openly deepens the sectarian divides in the Middle East ultimately risks creating a political reality in both Syria and Iraq that would only play into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Worse, it might even lead to the opening of war on new fronts.

With enough chaos in the Middle East, let’s hope the tensions de-escalate rapidly.