Will US and Israel Convince Russia to Alter Its Syria Policy?

Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin

by Mark N. Katz

A meeting of the national security advisors from the United States, Russia, and Israel is due to take place this June in Israel to discuss regional security issues. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that nothing like this has ever happened before. But what, though, can such a meeting achieve?

Russia, Iran, and various Shi’a militia forces allied to Iran (including Lebanon’s Hezbollah) have been assisting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria against numerous opponents that have sought its downfall. Although Iran and Hezbollah have long been anti-Israeli (with Iran supporting Hezbollah in its confrontations with Israeli forces in the past), they had focused less on Israel and more on Assad’s opponents in the conflict in Syria that has raged since 2011.

But now that Assad’s opponents have been drastically weakened and the regime’s survival seems assured, Israel on the one hand and Iran and Hezbollah on the other have turned their attention more toward each other. Several military encounters have resulted. The Israelis very much fear that expanded Iranian influence in Syria will allow Iran and Hezbollah to more readily attack Israel—a fear magnified by President Trump’s statements about withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria. To weaken their influence in Syria, Israeli forces have been attacking Hezbollah and even Iranian targets there.

Russia has played a curious role in this escalating conflict between Israel on the one hand and Iran and Hezbollah on the other. Moscow has worked closely with Iran and its allies to defend the Assad regime. Russia, though, also has close ties with Israel, and the relationship between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be especially cooperative. Although Moscow has criticized Israeli attacks on Iranian/Hezbollah targets in Syria, it has not done much to stop them. Indeed, Russia and Israel have apparently worked out a modus vivendi whereby Israel warns Russian forces in Syria of attacks it is about to launch and takes care not to target Russian personnel or materiel in return for Russia not using force to thwart these Israeli attacks.

Iran and Hezbollah, of course, can hardly be pleased by this Russian “even-handedness.” But as Moscow undoubtedly calculates, they are not in a position to do without its support in protecting Assad. Nor can they replace Russia with a more helpful ally. The Israelis, by contrast, are very pleased with Russian tolerance toward their attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah targets, but they want even more from Russia—as does the United States. Specifically, both the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government want Moscow to help them reduce or even end the Iranian presence in Syria. The U.S. and Israeli national security advisors (John Bolton and Meir Ban-Sabbat) will likely press their Russian counterpart, Nikolay Patrushev, on just this point at the upcoming meeting.

But as much as the U.S. and Israeli governments might want Russia to help reduce or eliminate the Iranian presence in Syria, it is highly doubtful that Moscow will or even can do this. Even if Russia somehow could, it’s not going to do so just because the United States and Israel believe that “it’s the right thing to do.” Moscow would want something quite valuable in return—such as the recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the elimination of the economic sanctions imposed thereafter. Although what Russia does in Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe is of lesser concern to Netanyahu than the Iranian presence in Syria, for the United States to make such concessions to Russia would negatively affect Washington’s ties with its European allies and would increase U.S. concerns about Trump’s willingness to make concessions to Putin—not something the Trump campaign wants to do before the 2020 elections.

Even in the unlikely event of Russian willingness to reduce or eliminate Iran’s position in Syria, though, it is not at all clear that Moscow is capable of bringing this about. Russia has been more successful militarily in Syria with far fewer troops than the United States has been in Afghanistan and Iraq with far more troops. But the success of Russia’s limited intervention in Syria has only been possible because Iran and its Shi’a militia allies have far more forces there that have undertaken the burden of fighting the ground war while the smaller Russian contingent has focused on the air war. Russia, then, simply can’t push out the larger Iranian and Hezbollah military presence with its own smaller one. If the Assad government publicly called upon Iran and its allies to leave, they might have to, but Assad is not likely to do this. He does not want to be totally dependent on either Moscow or Tehran. The continued presence of forces from both countries allows him room to maneuver between them—an advantage he is unlikely to want to give up.

There have been numerous reports that, now that the battle to save Assad has basically been won, Russia and Iran have been competing with each other for influence in Syria.  But however difficult a partner Iran is for Russia, Moscow hardly wants to see Iran and Hezbollah leave and risk a revival of the insurgency against Assad that Russian forces would then have to undertake the main burden of suppressing. And Moscow gains nothing by joining the United States and Israel in demanding that Iran withdraw from Syria but then failing to bring this about.

Instead, what Russia may hope to achieve is “the best of both worlds” by having Iranian and Hezbollah forces continue to bear the main burden of ensuring the survival of the Assad regime but making sure that Iran does not get the upper hand over Russia in any competition for influence in Syria. The best way for Russia to do this, though, is not to act against Iran itself, but continue to do nothing to prevent Israel from doing so. And since Israel is both willing and able to undertake this task, there is no reason for Russia to agree to any U.S. or Israeli demands at the upcoming meeting among national security advisors that it do anything different.

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Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com

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  1. Russia’s power without Iran means another Afghanistan for them and they are wise enough to avoid it even at the price of a ‘Crimea’.

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