"If a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the third," the ever-relevant Anton Chekhov assures us. Russia’s surprising, almost theatrical, entrance into the Syrian quagmire has produced a story line of which the famous novelist would definitely be proud. The plot thickens every day with all participants scheming against each other and sudden unexpected alliances arising and falling apart with astonishing speed.
In this drama, the interests of Russia and those of Israel are in direct conflict with each other. Only wishful thinking would dissuade an astute observer from a logical conclusion that the clash is inevitable.
Russia has inserted itself into the Syrian civil war with one purpose only: to preserve President Assad with all tools available at its disposal. Why the fate of this archaic and unstable regime is so important for Putin is irrelevant. Whether it is safeguarding the Mediterranean naval bases in Tartus, projecting the ability and the will to use force or just showing West’s inability to act resolutely does not matter.
What matters is the Kremlin’s resolve to keep the Alawite clan in power, and if that requires supporting Iranian elements such as Hezbollah or Iran directly, so be it. Moscow is not interested per se in bolstering Shiite power, but if that’s what it takes to preserve the Damascus regime, then such by-product is tactically permissible. All of Moscow’s diplomatic moves in the region are directed towards its own strategic goals. Russia’s desire to placate Israel and create a veil of normalcy is designed to keep a potential spoiler of its plans complacent and limited in options.
Israel, to its credit, is not easily misled into becoming a “useful idiot”, to use Lenin’s terminology. It understands Russian’s design. However, given the size of the adversary, Israel is limited in its options. Wisely, Netanyahu has decided to play the game and negotiate a minimum amount of security requirements. Israel has no better option than to play for time. Given recent Russian history and its current internal centrifugal forces, it is not beyond impossible to imagine the country disappearing suddenly from the world stage by going into a deep internal crisis yet again. However, to base one’s strategy on that, unlikely as a near-term scenario, would be highly imprudent, to say the least.
The recent admission by Israel of a bombing raid near Damascus, the firing of anti-aircraft missiles by the Syrian army and the subsequent summon of the Israeli Ambassador to Russia, testifies to the unraveling of this loosely tied knot. Especially telling is the event is taking place only weeks after Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow. Given the fluidity of the situation in Syria, it was only a matter of time before such an incident would take place. Israel has no choice but to act in its own interest to prevent game-changing weapons reaching Lebanon and disappearing there until the next war. Israel has clearly stated it will go the mile to prevent Iran from acquiring a permanent footing on the border with Israel. These well-vocalized ‘red lines’ come in direct conflict with Russia’s current moves.
Nevertheless, Israel will try to preserve the status quo, still incomparably better than a confrontation (whether military or diplomatic) with Russia. However, the question arises what will happen next time, if or when a Hezbollah convoy contains Russian equipment or manpower, or if Russian lives are lost in collateral damage. Such scenarios aren’t easily contained or predictable (the Russian jet shut down by Turkey’s air force was not part of Putin's calculus early in the campaign). Israel would try to deescalate the situation as fast as possible. However, in its dealings with Russia, Israel has another constraining aspect: the Russian Jewish community.
Israel, being the Jewish state with a self-declared mandate of responsibility for Jews worldwide, cannot act in disregard to the fate of one of the largest Diaspora Jewish communities. Given the high profile of many Jews in today’s Russia, a potential backlash from a confrontation with Israel cannot be underestimated. There are strong forces in the Russian society ready to unleash the worst kind of anti-Semitism. The government has been keeping them in check (like wild animals in a zoo), but could as easily set them loose, as it has shown no reservations elsewhere in using the worst human instincts in achieving immediate political goals.
The proverbial gun has not fired yet. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine how Russia and Israel’s conflicting interests won’t lead to a worsening relationship or even a direct confrontation. More robust direct U.S. involvement in Syria (and there are already signs of that taking place) may prevent the situation from deteriorating. However Israel, and Russian-speaking Jews in particular, should prepare for the day when the red stars still painted on the wings of Russian jets are viewed through the gun scopes. Anton Chekhov was a master of irony. This one would not escape him as well.
Lev Stesin lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.
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