In Syria, Iran-Israel rivalry puts Russian alliances in the spotlight

In Syria, Iran-Israel rivalry puts Russian alliances in the spotlight
4 min read
24 May, 2018
Comment: Russia's ties with the Assad regime will of course prevail, writes Mona Alami.
Putin visits a Russian military base in Syria with Assad [Getty]
In an unusual show of disagreement this week, Iran dismissed Russian remarks that the Islamic Republic should pull its forces out of Syria after a political deal is reached. 

This first public spat may indicate Russian difficulty in maintaining neutrality over the growing Israel Iran conflict in Syria, and the tactical nature of the Tehran-Moscow alliance.

On May 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated after a meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad that the next step after a political settlement in Syria should be the withdrawal of foreign countries and groups.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi responded by saying that "no one can force Iran to do anything," and that as long as terrorism exists and the Syrian government wants, Iran will have presence in Syria.

The statements come in the wake of escalating tensions between Israel and Iran in Assad's war-torn country, which are putting Moscow in an increasingly difficult position. In early May Israel struck several Iranian bases in Syria, to which the Islamic Republic responded by launching a rocket barrage at the Golan Heights on the border with Israel.

These tit-for-tat attacks mark the most direct confrontation between the two Middle East foes in recent times. On April 29, Israeli airstrikes targeting Syrian military positions in Hama and Aleppo reportedly hit two Iran-linked bases resulting in a giant explosion measuring 2.6 on the Richter scale.

So far, Russia has attempted to dodge the bullet by attempting a show of neutrality between the two protagonists; an increasingly complicated task.

Moscow's patience may wane as the escalation between the two regional rivals continues

According to Russian analyst Maxim Suchkov, Russia has conveyed to Iran and Israel that its current position as the only "go-to" entity for bilateral security issues is equally beneficial for them, unless they want the hostilities to slip into a bigger regional war.

Russian cooperation with the Syrian regime is also necessary if Moscow is to ensure Assad's military gains, and achieve a political settlement through the Astana track, an alternative to the UN-backed Geneva process for Syria, that Russia, Turkey and Iran kick-started last year.

Yet Moscow's patience may wane as the escalation between the two regional rivals continues. Russia's alliance with Assad will of course prevail, but as long as Moscow's own interests in this confrontation are not hurt, it will avoid directly taking sides, explains Suckov.

Russia's relations with Iran in Syria are above all tactical in nature. In one interview I conducted with a Hizballah commander, the militant underlined that while Hizballah and Iran cooperated with Russia, the latter was the partner of president Assad, their ally.

Hezbollah is a Lebanese movement backed by Iran. Historically, Moscow and Tehran have often been at odds in the region. First, during the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq were at war, the Soviet Union was Saddam Hussein's main weapon provider.

According to Christian Science Monitor, in 1995 Soviet prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin signed a secret agreement with the US to halt all conventional arms sales to the Islamic Republic, and in 2010, Russia voted in the UN Security Council to back comprehensive sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

More recently, Russia has often submitted to US and Israeli requests not to fulfill weapon contracts. In addition Russia maintains privileged relations with Israel.

In his last meeting with Putin, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he has no reason to believe the Kremlin would attempt to limit Israel's freedom of operation in the region, an apparent reference to alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria. Moscow also understands Israel's security calculus, which is not directly concerned with Assad remaining in power, but with Iran beefing up its deterrence powers there.

Russia has managed so far to keep some balance between Iran and Israel, but its task is becoming more and more difficult to achieve.

Russia has managed so far to keep some balance between Iran and Israel

Iran is intent on expanding its influence in Syria while Israel is equally as determined to sabotage Iranian military assets  there, and the two agendas are set on a definite collision course in the future.

When this happens, Moscow will definitely prioritize safeguarding its gains in Syria to avoid being in Tehran's cross hairs. Ultimately, no one is as capable as Russia in limiting Iran's actions, given Moscow's long time successes in similar warfare.

Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese analyst who writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world. She is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center, and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.  

Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff