by Mark N. Katz
In the wake of President Trump’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear accord and the direct clashes between Israeli and Iranian forces in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and watch a parade. They also talked, of course, but both sides have been remarkably tight-lipped about what was said (or at least, what Putin said) and what, if anything, was agreed to. This could be because, although Russia and Israel appear to disagree strongly, their interests regarding Syria, Iran, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are actually more convergent. Moscow, though, does not wish to draw too much attention to this convergence.
Netanyahu has long opposed the Iranian nuclear accord, claiming that Tehran fully intends to acquire nuclear weapons. It is only using the agreement, he argues, as a means both to “lull into complacency” the West and others about Iran’s nuclear program and to motivate America and the West to overlook Iran’s regional ambitions and hostility toward Israel in order to preserve the nuclear accord. And with the Assad regime’s internal opponents largely defeated, Netanyahu is increasingly concerned that Iran and its allies (Hezbollah and other Shi’a militias) will turn their attention toward targeting Israel. Thus, Netanyahu both called for and welcomed Trump’s announcement that the U.S. is withdrawing from the JCPOA. Trump’s move may even have emboldened Netanyahu to strike Iranian targets in Syria.
Under Putin, by contrast, Russia was one of the six countries that negotiated the JCPOA. After Trump’s announcement, Putin (like many European and other leaders) called for the continued observance of the JCPOA. Moscow has also called Iran a partner in the war on terror against jihadists in Syria and elsewhere. The differences between Putin and Netanyahu with regard to Iran, then, appear to be quite stark.
But appearances can be deceiving. Trump’s pullout from the JCPOA when America’s European allies want it to continue is causing a rift within the West that Putin sees as something that Russia can exploit. AlthoughPutin does not share Netanyahu’s vision of Iran as an existential threat, Netanyahu’s urging of Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA and thereby cause a rift between the U.S. and Europe has been both useful and welcome.
Israeli attacks in Syria, of course, could damage Russian interests. But as both Russian and Israeli press accounts have reported, Israel informed Russia about the attacks it would make as per the Russian-Israeli de-confliction agreement. By doing so, Israel avoided doing any harm to Russians present in Syria. But it also showed that, although Israel considers the Iranian presence in Syria threatening, it does not regard the Russian presence there as such. Further, Israel informing Russia about its pending attack on Syria demonstrates that Netanyahu respects Russia and Putin in particular.
Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria may also be useful for Moscow. The battle to decide the fate of the Assad regime, after all, is largely over. Assad and his Russian, Iranian, and other allies have prevailed. The question now arises as to what happens to that alliance. Victorious alliances often fracture after the common goal has been achieved and the erstwhile allies pursue different, competing goals. Although unable and probably unwilling to eliminate each other’s presence in Syria completely, Moscow and Tehran both want to gain the upper hand there and have the other play a subordinate role.
Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria have the advantage of weakening Iran vis-à-vis Russia inside Syria without Moscow having to confront Tehran directly. And Tehran does have ambitions in Syria that Moscow does not share. For Tehran, preserving the Assad regime is not just an end in itself, but a means for Iran to better support Hezbollah in Lebanon in its conflict with Israel. Russia, by contrast, has strong economic and security ties to Israel that it wants to continue and expand. Moscow does not want Iran to disturb this, or create sufficient problems for Israel that the U.S. gets back into the Syrian conflict in Israel’s defense.
Yet Putin does not want Israel to become so aggressive in Syria that Putin is forced to do something to defend its Iranian allies or appear complicit with Israel by doing nothing to stop it. Putin’s threat of delivering S-300 air defense missiles to Assad—originally made after the recent U.S. missile attack on Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons against its opponents—might serve to prevent this. According to Israeli press accounts, Netanyahu specifically asked Putin not to transfer these weapons to Syria. Putin’s response has not been reported. Perhaps he prefers to keep Netanyahu in doubt about how Moscow will respond if Israel presses its attacks on Iranian targets.
Putin, though, may not succeed in this. Although Putin’s and Netanyahu’s interests with regard to Syria may be convergent, they are not identical. Putin wants Iran to remain in Syria as a junior partner in propping up the Assad regime but not acting provocatively otherwise. Netanyahu not only wants Iran out of Syria, but may even join U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and other hawks in seeking regime change in Tehran. If so, the Putin-Netanyahu tactical alliance will not last.