Earlier this month, when Israeli missiles struck a military site near Damascus that reportedly housed Iranian forces, the intended message was clear: Israel will not tolerate the permanent presence of Iranian militias and military infrastructure in Syria. This represents a clear redline for Iran’s leadership, one that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made explicit in a video message released a few hours later: “We will not allow [Iran] to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”
Israel’s reasons for sending a message to Iran are straightforward: it does not want Syria to become another base for the Iranian regime and its allies. Pro-Iranian forces already threaten Israel from Lebanon, where Israeli officials believe that Hezbollah has more than 100,000 missiles. Tehran also has established close relations with the militant Palestinian movement Islamic Jihad and Hamas’ military wing. And in 2015, after Iran signed a nuclear deal with the United States, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that Israel “will not see [the end] of these 25 years” and that “Iran will support anyone who strikes at Israel.”
But Tehran was not the only audience for this message. Since Russia entered the Syrian civil war in the fall of 2015, an important shift has taken place: Iran is no longer the strongest foreign power in Syria; Russia is. So far, Russian and Iranian goals in Syria have been aligned, but that is changing as the war enters a new phase. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin would not hesitate to act against Israel if necessary, the two countries have common interests in Syria—and those common interests may help Israel enforce its redline against Iran.
Since May 2011, Iran has been one of the principal international supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran considers Assad a key part of the so-called axis of resistance against Israeli and U.S. influence in the region. The two countries also share a history of cooperation: Syria was one of the only countries that took Iran’s side during the Iran-Iraq War, and Iran has long used Syria as a gateway to equip Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Now that Assad’s position has been stabilized, Tehran appears to be aiming for more than just regime survival. In late 2016, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Mohammad Bagheri, suggested that Iran intends to build a naval base in Syria. And in November, the BBC reported on claims that Iran was constructing a permanent military base just south of Damascus, only 50 kilometers from the Israeli border. Israel has interpreted these developments as a direct threat and responded accordingly—the December 1 strike allegedly targeted the site near Damascus, killing 12 Iranian soldiers and wounding many more, and reportedly destroyed an arms depot as well. Upholding a redline on the presence of Iran and Iranian-backed militias in Syria has broad, bipartisan support in Israel. Even Netanyahu’s rivals are not standing in his way (unlike in 2012 when numerous politicians opposed his plans to attack Iran’s nuclear installations before the nuclear deal).
Now that Assad’s position has been stabilized, Tehran appears to be aiming for more than just regime survival.
But Iran’s plans to establish a permanent foothold in Syria may be a problem not only for Israel. Although Russia has worked with Iran to support the Assad regime against what it calls “Islamic terrorists,” when it comes to Syria’s future, Russian and Iranian interests have begun to diverge.
The Kremlin ultimately hopes that its participation in the Syrian civil war will seal its position as an important geostrategic power. With the annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria, Putin has been trying to reassert Russia’s position by making it an indispensable player in areas vital to U.S. interests. Since its recent victories against the Islamic State and opposition forces in Syria, Russia has been pushing for a peace deal that will include the majority of the opposition as well as the Assad regime in negotiations over the country’s future. The permanent presence of pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Syria would get in the way of such a deal and threaten regional stability.
Furthermore, Russia will not be able to foot the bill for Syrian reconstruction by itself—according to the UN special envoy for Syria, rebuilding the country will cost at least $250 billion. But neither the West nor the Saudis will invest in this project if a war between Israel and pro-Iranian forces in Syria looks likely. So despite the conventional wisdom about the Iranian-Russian alliance, Israel’s recent attacks in Syria indirectly serve Russian interests.
The Kremlin recognizes that pressure from Israel could strengthen its hand when it comes to convincing Assad that he should not allow Iran to carry out its apparent plans for a permanent military base in Syria. In fact, Moscow is already tacitly cooperating with the Israelis in ways that undermine Tehran in this regard.
Compared with other Russian and Soviet leaders, Putin has taken unprecedented steps to establish good relations with Israel. His willingness to listen to, and even sympathize with, Israel’s concerns may stem in part from his close personal connections with Russian Jews. When Putin was a child, his family shared their 20-meter communal apartmentwith a religious Jewish family. Anatoly Rakhlin, Putin’s judo instructor and mentor, was also Jewish. And Putin’s childhood German teacher now lives in Tel Aviv in an apartment that Putin bought for her.
This warm relationship has enabled strategic cooperation. In Syria, Israel and Russia have established mechanisms to ensure that their air forces do not clash. Shortly after the Russians entered the Syrian civil war, the two countries set up a telephone hot line between the Russian aviation command center at the Hmeimim air base and a command post of the Israeli Air Force. And according to General Amos Gilad, a former Israeli Defense Ministry official, the two countries have also implemented deescalation procedures to ensure the security of Russian aircraft that accidentally cross into Israeli airspace. As a result of these agreements, Russian pilots have been flying their missions in Syria without fear of being shot down by the Israeli air defenses near the Syrian-Israeli border, and Israeli pilots have been able to attack Iranian and Hezbollah targets inside Syrian territory without worrying about accidentally running into Russian fighter jets. In effect, by not using the Russian Air Force to defend his Iranian or Hezbollah allies against Israeli attacks, Putin is cooperating with the Israeli government’s efforts to enforce a redline against the Iranian military buildup.
WILL THE CENTER HOLD?
At the moment, tensions between Iran and Israel in Syria are growing, and Iranian retaliation against the recent Israeli strike is a question of when, not if. Most likely it will take the form of terror attacks against Israeli citizens abroad, similar to the July 2012 suicide bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, which was widely attributed to Hezbollah. Tehran could also pressure Assad to allow an increased military presence in Syria and perhaps even directly attack Israeli forces from Syrian soil. But regardless of the form it takes, Tehran’s response is unlikely to deter Israel from attacking Iranian targets in Syria. And Iran will likely try to continue pursuing a military buildup in Syria despite Israeli warnings, which will provoke further strikes.
Cooling down this dangerous cycle will require diplomatic intervention. Putin is the only person who has the credibility and power to broker an agreement between Iran and Israel. For now, it serves his interests to let Israel undermine Iran’s military presence in Syria, but if tensions escalate into a direct Israeli-Iranian conflict on Syrian soil, that calculation would change. Only then—after the weakening of pro-Iranian forces—would Russia pressure both sides to find a diplomatic solution.
Russia has invested a lot to keep the Assad regime in power, and Iran’s plans to expand its sphere of influence and use Syria as a base to threaten Israel jeopardize this investment. In the long run, Putin is unlikely to let this activity go unchecked. As a result, a Russian diplomatic intervention would likely reduce the presence and capabilities of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria. From Israel’s standpoint, this may not be the worst outcome.