Would Russia respond to an Iran-Israel conflict in Syria?

Would Russia respond to an Iran-Israel conflict in Syria?
Analysis: Russia's role in Syria may very well depend on any future confrontation between Israel and Iran, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
25 April, 2018
Russia uses advanced S-400 missile defence systems in Syria, giving the S-300s to Damascus [Getty]

As tensions escalate between Iran and Israel and the risk of a major confrontation between the two in Syria increases, how Russia might respond is an important factor to evaluate.

On February 10, an armed Iranian drone was shot down over Israeli airspace prompting a swift and devastating Israeli response.

The Israeli Air Force targeted 12 bases across Syria, including the major T-4 (Tiyas) airbase in Homs province in central Syria - from which Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitaries launched the drone.

A Syrian missile successfully knocked an F-16 out of the sky as it returned from one of these bombing runs. The only reason Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu didn't launch a follow-up series of strikes was because Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a "furious phone call", told him to cease and desist.

Two months later, on April 9, Israeli jets struck again, bombing T-4 and killing 14 personnel - including at least seven IRGC troops. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called this a "very dangerous development" and the Russian Defence Ministry also announced openly that Israeli F-15s launched the attack, signaling Moscow's clear disapproval of the strike.

Israel has launched several airstrikes against regime targets since at least January 2013. Even after the Russian military intervened decisively in the Syrian conflict back in September 2015, Israel has had relatively free rein to bomb targets across Syria - invariably described by Israel as caches containing advanced weaponry it fears Iran's proxy militia Hizballah acquiring in Lebanon.

Israel and Russia, at least until April 9, have avoided stepping on each others toes by keeping an open communications line established shortly after the Russian military arrived in Syria.

It appears the April 9 strike was the first time Israel gave no forewarning to Russia before attacking.

Russia neither wants, nor can, actively mediate between Iran and Israel because it is a very challenging and risky endeavour

Moscow maintains several advanced air superiority fighter jets in Syria as well as sophisticated long-range S-400 air defence missile systems that could seriously hinder any Israeli effort to launch large-scale airstrikes in Syria. However, it's unclear if it would flex its military muscle or interfere directly in an attempt to prevent any confrontation.

"Russia's approach to Israeli-Iranian rivalry in Syria is based on the presumption that this conflict can be tolerated unless it threatens the Syrian regime," Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told The New Arab.

"Russia neither wants, nor can, actively mediate between Iran and Israel because it is a very challenging and risky endeavour.

"On the other hand, I believe, any - controlled - escalation of conflict over the Iranian presence in Syria may serve Russian interests, since it could push [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad closer to Moscow by demonstrating to Damascus that toleration of Iranian military presence, and with it its political influence within the Syrian establishment - which exceeds military necessities - is detrimental to Syrian sovereignty."

After the United States-led cruise missile strikes across Syria on April 14, Russia began talking again about supplying S-300 air defence missiles to Damascus, a sale it previously agreed to suspend in 2013 to placate staunch Israeli opposition.

If I know the air force well, we have already made proper plans to deal with this threat

A former Israeli intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, quoted by Bloomberg, predicted that if the missiles were delivered, the Israelis would likely move in and blow them up. Yaldin was, incidentally, one of the pilots which Israel sent to pre-emptively destroy Iraq's Osirak reactor in Baghdad on June 7, 1981.

"If I know the air force well, we have already made proper plans to deal with this threat," he said. "After you remove the threat, which is basically what will be done, we're back to square one."

The April 9 strike on T-4 reportedly targeted a Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile system that the Iranians were deploying there, another example of the lengths to which Israel has proven itself ready to go in order to prevent Iran and/or its proxies from setting up such systems in either Syria, or Lebanon.

In 1997, Russia supplied the island nation of Cyprus with the S-300. After Turkey threatened to attack Cyprus if they did not have the missiles removed, Nicosia transferred the missiles to Athens, which deployed them to the island of Crete, where they remain today.

In 2015 those same S-300s participated in drills between Greece and Israel's air forces, which Reuters reported allowed "Israel's warplanes to test how the S-300's lock-on system works, gathering data on its powerful tracking radar and how it might blinded or bluffed".

Israel ultimately failed to convince Russia not to supply Iran with the same system, which Moscow did shortly after the passage of the nuclear deal three years ago.

After the April 9 strike, Iran vowed it would retaliate for the killing of its troops. Israel suspects Tehran will do this directly using either more armed drones or missiles in cross-border attacks. The February incident and the T-4 bombing were both essentially unprecedented. As a senior Israeli military official told The New York Times, Iran's drone incursion in February constituted "the first time we saw Iran do something [directly] against Israel - not by proxy", while the bombing of T-4 "was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets - both facilities and people."

Consequently, another major clash, or a more serious confrontation that could lead to war, is a possiblity.

Israel has decided not to send its advanced F-15s to participate in joint Red Flag exercises with the United States Air Force in Alaska for the first time, a sign that it is preparing for the worst.

As Stratfor notes: "The Israelis, by keeping their premier strike fighter squadron at home and at full strength, are either better positioning themselves for an Iranian strike or are themselves gearing up to carry out attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria. F-15I fighters could play a central role in both scenarios."

Whatever ultimately does or does not transpire, the fact that an advanced and highly formidable Russian military force remains in place in Syria must be seriously factored into account.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon