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An Iranian, Russian and Israeli Walk Into Syria

Israel will have to live with an Iranian base in Syria, relying on empty Russian promises and few commitments

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Syrian pro-government forces hold a position in western Qalamoun, Syria on August 23, 2017 during an offensive against Islamic State fighters.
Syrian pro-government forces hold a position in western Qalamoun, Syria on August 23, 2017 during an offensive against Islamic State fighters. Credit: YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It’s highly unlikely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from Moscow with a promise from Russian President Vladimir Putin to eliminate or even restrict Iran’s presence in Syria. It’s not that Putin dislikes the idea; he’d actually love to oust his Farsi-speaking rival. He simply can’t do it.

Russia and Iran don’t have a patron-client relationship like the American-Israeli one. The Russian superpower and the Iranian aspirant to regional power are cooperating in Syria not out of love but out of necessity. The divergence in their strategic goals (not to mention their ideologies) is huge.

Russia wants a diplomatic solution that will let it influence Syria from afar, withdraw its troops and get a chunk of the country’s reconstruction work. Iran wants to escape its Mideast encirclement and consolidate its presence in Syria – and not just through agents, as it did in Lebanon though Hezbollah or Yemen through the Houthis.

But this doesn’t mean Iran sees Syria as a base for launching missiles at Israel or that its calculations revolve around its capabilities for attacking Israel. Iran is seeking global legitimacy, and that aspiration can’t be reconciled with a direct attack on another state.

If in the past, Tehran was satisfied with access to countries that didn’t want to shake its hand, today it wants influence. This might ensure that it won’t violate the nuclear agreement, despite its threats to do so if Washington doesn’t fulfill its obligations as Iran interprets them, because the deal gave Iran an international kashrut certificate as a rational state with which agreements can be signed.

In Syria, Iran has obtained a foothold in every strategic region. According to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group that has previously provided accurate information about Tehran’s nuclear program, Iran currently has 70,000 combatants in Syria, counting both regular Iranian troops and militias under Iranian control. The latter include Hezbollah, Shi’ite militias from Iraq, Afghani and Pakistani volunteers, and local Syrian militias organized by Iran.

Iranian troops and their affiliated militias have been given both Syrian army bases and civilian facilities, like a university located between Damascus and the southern town of Sweida where the Iranians installed SAM-1 anti-aircraft batteries.

The above data dates from late 2016. Since then, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has sent additional troops and senior officers to Syria.

Mohsen Rezaei, who commanded the Iranian Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), served as secretary general of the government’s powerful Expediency Discernment Council and mounted several unsuccessful bids for president, was recently appointed an adviser on Syria to Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. The very fact that a senior politician like Razaei sought involvement in planning the Syrian campaign attests to Syria’s importance in Iran’s military strategy.

Iran’s heavy deployment in Syria has its costs. Though there are no official statistics, at least 500 Iranian soldiers are thought to have been killed in Syria, not counting casualties in Hezbollah or other militias.

Moreover, on some fronts, Iranian forces have had to withdraw under Russian pressure. Russia, not Iran, will police the de-escalation zones in the south, along the Israeli and Jordanian borders. And even in the northern de-escalation zones, Iran had to make concessions to Turkey, which demanded involvement in monitoring areas near the Kurdish regions.

Nevertheless, these tactical setbacks don’t change the fact of Iran’s presence in Syria. Assuming Russia continues to play a central role in navigating diplomatic talks, establishing local truces and policing de-escalation zones in Syria, then Iran, thanks to its presence there, is guaranteed an influential role in the Arab Middle East.

Iran has also benefited from other Arab crises. See, for instance, Qatar’s decision this week to return its ambassador to Iran (a purely declarative step, since the two countries’ economic and military ties never ended) following an 80-day blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. During this blockade, Iran became Qatar’s main conduit for food and other goods – the opposite of the blockading countries’ goal, which was to end Qatar’s ties with Iran. But that goal was always impractical, given that Qatar and Iran are partners in the Mideast’s largest gas field.

The most interesting aspect of the Qatari crisis was Russia’s noninvolvement, which stemmed from recognition of its own weakness. It has no influence over Saudi Arabia on internal Arab issues, nor is Qatar within its sphere of influence. The implications for Russia’s ability to influence Iran’s regional conduct are clear – especially since Moscow has both strategic and economic interests in avoiding a rift with Tehran, and won’t risk one over an issue that mainly concerns Jerusalem and Washington.

What Moscow can demand is that Tehran not act in a way likely to endanger either the Assad regime or the Russian-led diplomatic process in Syria by opening another front with Israel on Syrian territory. Such a demand could produce agreements on what type of weaponry, especially missiles, Iran can deploy in Syria or on where it can station its troops. Since both countries have an interest in preserving the Assad regime, this argument is likely to weigh heavily with Iran.

So far, Israel has refrained from threatening to hold the Assad regime responsible for Iran’s deployment of troops or sophisticated weaponry in Syria, though it has threatened to hold the Lebanese government responsible for Iranian actions in Lebanon. But even if Israel explicitly threatened Assad, this probably wouldn’t deter Tehran, since Iran seeks to establish a balance of deterrence against Israel in Syria such as it already has in Lebanon.

Thus barring unexpected changes, it seems Israel will have to live with Syria being an Iranian forward base, relying on Russian promises that don’t amount to commitments and doing without backing from Washington, which is rapidly disengaging from Syria.

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