Analysis

Israeli Strikes in Syria Risk Forcing Russia to Adopt pro-Iranian Stance

Following Iran's drone infiltration into Israel, cracks could be found in the working assumption that Moscow controls all of the moves in Syria

President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with Russian Olympic athletes at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside in Moscow, Russia. On Friday, Feb. 9, 2018
Grigory Dukor/AP

Key media outlets in Iran have so far preferred to quote the Syrian state news agency SANA and media outlets in Israel in their reports on events in Syria on Saturday. As expected, the headlines focused on the downing of an Israeli fighter jet and not on the interception of an Iranian drone – the careful wording attempting to distance Iran from any involvement in Saturday morning’s events. If these reports serve as an indication of Iran’s political and military position, they reflect an effort to avoid direct confrontation with Israel and continue to frame the conflict as being between Syria and Israel, and unconnected to Iran.

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Iran is waiting anxiously for a decision by U.S. President Donald Trump, expected in May, about the future of the Iranian nuclear agreement and the option of new sanctions the administration wants to impose on Iran. A military clash between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria could play into Trump’s hands and those of the congressmen/women who would use such a conflict as proof that new sanctions need to be imposed on Tehran.

Iran is part of a troika, including Russia and Turkey, that has unsuccessfully sought a diplomatic solution to the war. Iran doesn’t want to open another military front with Israel, which could lead Israel to start a war against Hezbollah. This strategy requires Iran to keep a low military profile not only with regard to Israel, but also toward Turkish forces that invaded northern Syria last month to stop Kurdish militias from taking over the border areas.

Children carrying a part of a missile in Quneitra, Syria, February 10, 2018.
\ ALAA AL-FAQIR/ REUTERS

At the same time, it may be assumed that, as a rule, Iran has to coordinate its military actions with Russia – in order to prevent a situation in which a military clash with Israel sabotages chances of diplomatic action by Russia and could turn the presidential palace in Damascus into a target for Israeli strikes.

On the other hand, this strategy also requires an explanation as to why an Iranian drone was sent toward Israel – an action that is of no military use to Iran and could (and indeed did) bring about an Israeli response of unknown extent, and present Iran as the aggressor.

One explanation is navigational error rather than a tactical decision – or worse, a strategic one to goad Israel into a response. Another, less likely, explanation is that Iran wanted to show off the capabilities of the drone, in the context of reports made public this week that Iran is working on extensive production of Mohajer 6-model drones as part of its espionage and defense array.

When it comes to military action in Syria, Iran is far more restricted by diplomatic considerations than Israel is. Israel enjoys almost unlimited U.S. backing and even limited Russian “permission” to operate in Syrian territory, as long as the target isn’t the regime itself but activities and facilities that can be linked to Hezbollah. But Iran, being a full partner both during the war and afterward, is obligated to maintain balance and coordination with the other partners.

However, this balance does not give Israel free rein to test the limits of Russian patience. That is to say, to what extent Russia will allow Israel to carry out targeted actions when it is becoming clear that by turning a blind eye, it could expand and deepen Israeli military involvement – to the extent of fully opening up a military front.

Israeli soldiers on the border with Syria, February 10, 2018.
Gil Eliahu

Growing cracks can be found in the working assumption that Russia controls all of the military and diplomatic moves in Syria, and can therefore prevent Iran and Turkey from operating in Syria to further their own interests. Russia was unable to prevent Turkey from invading northern Syria; it failed to turn the Sochi conference in late January into a significant step toward an overall cease-fire and subsequently to negotiate the establishment of a transitional government; and it didn’t deal with the deployment of pro-Iranian forces in southern Syria in a manner that might assuage Israeli concerns.

Russia, which vigorously renewed its strikes on Idlib province in a bid to defeat the rebel forces and aid the regime’s takeover of the city and the district, needs the assistance of pro-Iranian militias in the area to complete the operation. This assistance places Russia in a bind: Between its desire to restrict Iranian influence; and its objective of ending the military conflict in favor of the Syrian regime, in which Iran plays a major role.

Israeli involvement could, therefore, not only divert the focus of the fighting to an unexpected front. It would also force Russia to adopt an openly pro-Iranian strategy, when so far it has been trying to walk a fuzzy line, managing to maintain coordination with all sides.

Israeli involvement could also influence the branding of the war in Syria from being a domestic struggle into a war against Israel, thus strengthening Iran’s position, that of Hezbollah and some of the militias, and underscoring the Syrian and Iranian claim that Israel and the United States are the entities wanting to perpetuate the war.

As a result, Israel’s declared strategy of preventing Iranian forces from establishing themselves in Syria cannot ignore the web of diplomatic considerations dictating the actions of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Syria. At least in the foreseeable future, these three countries will continue coordinating their actions as allies and will make an effort to keep other entities, like Israel and the United States, out of the arena – especially after they managed to block any diplomatic or military move by Washington in Syria.

In the short term, the continued conflict depends on a decision by the Israeli government and on considering the pressures being brought to bear on it by Moscow and Washington to hold back on its desire to loosen Iran’s grip in Syria.