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Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the United Nations General Assembly, defending his country’s support for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and casting Russia’s military buildup in Syria as an effort to combat jihadist forces, including the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Days later, Russia began a campaign of airstrikes in Syria. Washington immediately cried foul, asserting that Russia had actually targeted not ISIS but rather other opponents of Assad—including some backed by the United States. American officials warned of the risk of miscommunications and mishaps as both U.S. and Russia warplanes carry out missions in the skies above Syria.
Most analysts have viewed these developments through the lens of geopolitical competition between Russia and the United States. Some have argued that Putin is taking advantage of a vacuum supposedly created by limited U.S. involvement in Syria, and that Putin is using the crisis as a way to increase Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Others have countered that the Russian leader is merely dragging his country into a quagmire that U.S. President Barack Obama has opted to avoid. Both of those arguments, however, share the assumption that Russia’s stepped-up support represents a boost for the pro-Assad coalition, which in addition to Russia also includes Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
But deeper Russian intervention also has the potential to complicate matters for the pro-Assad bloc, since Russia’s interests are not always aligned with those of Assad’s patrons in Tehran and allies in Beirut. In fact, Russia’s interests are in some important ways less aligned with those of the pro-Assad faction than with the interests of that bloc’s sworn enemy: Israel. And Putin could very well use his newfound leverage within the pro-Assad coalition to push both the Syrian regime and its other backers into more moderate positions—on the Syrian conflict and beyond.
PUTIN TO THE RESCUE
At first glance, one might expect Russia’s military campaign in Syria to worry Israel. And indeed, last month, amid signs that Russia planned to step up its involvement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hurried to Moscow to meet with Putin. Ever since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the Israelis have tried to take advantage of the fighting to disrupt the flow of Iranian arms through Syria to Hezbollah, which has been involved in a decades-long conflict with the Jewish state. The Israelis do not quite long for Assad’s demise, since they fear that what might follow him could be worse. But they have tried to capitalize on his weakness to damage Hezbollah’s capabilities. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, since 2011 the Israelis have launched more than a dozen air strikes against targets in Lebanon and Syria, targeting weapons caches and arms-transport convoys. Many analysts believe that during the same period, Israeli intelligence services have carried out a number of assassinations of Hezbollah operatives in both countries.
The arrival of Russian forces in Syria has made it harder for Israel to plan and execute such operations. Just as the Americans worry about an inadvertent clash between their forces and Russia’s, so too do the Israelis wish to avoid working directly at cross-purposes with Russia, a country with which Israel maintains fairly good relations. Complicating matters further is the fact that, according to Ha’aretz, some of the weapons convoys and warehouses that Israel has attacked in Syria included Russian-made long-range antiship missiles. And some of the Israeli strikes took place near Latakia, close to where the Russians have now established an air base.
Russia has no dog in the sectarian fight that has come to partly define the conflict
Given those factors, one might expect that Putin’s decision to begin using direct Russian force in Syria would cheer Assad’s other allies—not only because it could bolster Assad’s grip on power but also because it might constrain Israel’s ability to take advantage of the chaos in Syria. Sure enough, last week, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, praised Russia’s military buildup, explaining that Hezbollah welcomes “any force that enters Syria to support” the Assad regime and describing the Russian moves as “coordinated” with Assad’s other allies. In recent days, a number of news outlets have reported that Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters are planning a coordinated ground offensive against anti-Assad forces, with air support from Russian warplanes.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
On closer inspection, however, Russia’s forceful entrance into the Syrian conflict might not have the effects that many of the players seem to expect. One reason is that Russia has no dog in the sectarian fight that has come to partly define the conflict, which pits a pro-Assad Shiite bloc led by Iran against an anti-Assad Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Putin wants Assad to stay in power not because Assad is the linchpin of any Shiite axis but because Syria is the only place that Russia maintains sizable influence in the Middle East, and because Assad is a secular autocrat—much like Putin, who gets nervous anytime opposition forces in a country friendly to Russia seem poised to remove a ruler of his own type. That means that when it comes time to negotiate a political settlement to resolve the Syrian civil war—which is how this conflict will probably end someday—Russia is likelier than Iran to pressure Assad to accept accommodations with Sunni factions in a power-sharing arrangement or an outright partition of the country.
The Iranians and Hezbollah also consider Assad a member of their revolutionary vanguard, the “Axis of Resistance” against Israeli and American power. One of their goals in propping him up is to make sure that Syria remains a “resistance state” in perpetuity, projecting power in the region and restricting Israel’s room to maneuver. But Russia does not share that goal at all. Putin sees Assad as a source of stability and predictability not as part of a revolutionary, ideological vanguard determined to transform the regional order. Russia maintains relatively close ties with Israel, and has little interest in aiding Iran and Hezbollah’s anti-Zionist agenda. Put simply, Putin has pledged to defend Assad, but he has not signed up for the regional showdown driven in large part by religion and ideology that Assad’s other friends have long pursued.
Russia’s interests are in some important ways less aligned with those of the pro-Assad faction than with the interests of that bloc’s sworn enemy: Israel
Indeed, at a certain point, Russia might choose to use its new leverage not only to moderate Assad but also to constrain the other members of the pro-Assad bloc. Now that Iran and Hezbollah will be relying to a larger extent on Russia, Putin might press them to focus on the task of propping up the Assad regime and to deprioritize some of their other activities: for example, discouraging Hezbollah from supporting Palestinian militants or developing military infrastructure near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Putin could go even further, in an attempt to demonstrate that the use of Russian force has a stabilizing effect on the region unlike recent exertions of U.S. power. For example, he might insist that Iran significantly reduce its shipments of weapons to Hezbollah, a move that would not only please Israel but would show up the United States, which would find it extremely difficult to effect such a shift in Iranian behavior. Similarly, Putin might try to use his additional leverage to create conditions for a multiparty settlement to the many conflicts that are raging in the region: for example, he could encourage Iran to scale back its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen or push Tehran to rein in the various Iraqi Shiite militias that it backs, all with the aim of seeking—or at least appearing to seek—the kind of regional stability that Washington has been unable to foster.
Either way, one thing is certain: Israel will now be able to turn to a powerful and sympathetic contact at the center of the pro-Assad coalition should the conflict begin to pose a more severe threat to Israeli interests.
Despite these possibilities, most Western analysts seem to assume that Russia’s military intervention will only allow Assad and his allies to become less willing to make concessions or to moderate their actions. Yet if Western powers can find ways to exploit the latent tensions within the pro-Assad camp, and perhaps even encourage Putin to use his leverage in a constructive fashion, what may appear to be an inflammatory Russian leap into the Syrian quagmire might instead wind up representing a step towards ending the cascade of conflicts that is tearing apart the Middle East.