Russia and Israel have traditionally managed a tense but calculated relationship over Syria’s civil war. However, their bond recently encountered perhaps its worst flashpoint yet, amid Israel’s continuous striking of Iranian proxy targets in Syria. Moscow has apparently signalled that it will no longer put up with Israeli attacks within its close Middle Eastern ally’s territory. Furthermore, as tensions between Israel and Iran intensify, Russia’s ability to maintain relations with the two regional rivals has faced new challenges.
On July 19, Israeli jets fired eight guided missiles at Hezbollah and Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria’s Aleppo province. In response, Moscow reportedly did not simply tolerate these strikes nor offer a typical denunciation. Instead, Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit – Deputy Chief of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Parties in Syria – claimed that Russian missile-defense systems were used to shoot down seven of the eight missiles.
A Syrian official added to this claim by saying that Syrian air defenses downed most of the missiles in the attack, without elaborating further than his Russian counterpart.
A few days later, Kulit asserted that Russia-made weaponry had intercepted four guided missiles which were fired from two Israeli F-16s over Lebanese airspace, at targets in Syria’s Homs province.
“All four missiles were destroyed by the Syrian duty air defense facilities, with the use of Buk-2ME systems of Russian manufacture,” he said.
Moreover, a report from the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat quoted an unnamed, “well-informed” Russian source, who alleged that after the first summit between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in June, Washington confirmed to Moscow “it does not welcome the continuous Israeli raids” in Syria.
Russia reportedly expressed frustrations over Israel “ignoring the rules of the game” in Syria.
Such claims have stoked further speculation regarding Russia’s current approach towards Israel, as the US apparently gave Russia a nod to act more firmly against Israeli strikes, according to the same source. Russia had reportedly expressed frustrations over Israel “ignoring the rules of the game” in Syria. This comes as Joe Biden’s administration has been considered less tightknit in relations with Israel, compared to his predecessor Donald Trump.
Avoiding a Collision Course
Adding more weight to the recent allegations is the fact that following the Biden-Putin summit in June, Russia adopted a critical tone towards Israel’s actions in Syria. On June 25, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, denounced Israeli airstrikes in Syria, saying that they “complicate efforts to stabilize the situation in Syria and the region,” as they “become more and more frequent.”
It is important to note that since Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, it has not only protected its allied Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but its involvement has also enabled Iran to secure its foothold in the country. After all, Tehran has expanded its presence in Syria since intervening in 2013, to help Assad combat opposition forces. Meanwhile, Russia primarily wanted to leverage Assad’s regime, to bolster its overall clout in the Middle East, yet it has been forced to placate both its regional allies – Iran and Israel – in a careful juggling act.
In fact, Israel’s own interests in the Syrian civil war had initially triggered tensions with Russia. Although Israel states its official position is one of neutrality between Assad and rebel forces, despite its technical “state-of-war’” with Damascus, it has voiced concerns about growing Iranian expansion in the country. It has also been preoccupied over Lebanon’s Hezbollah faction, which is aligned with Tehran and Assad.
Perceiving Israel’s policies as a threat to Syria’s national sovereignty, Moscow’s strategy to contain Israeli firing began in March 2017. It coincided with claims in Russian media that its air force downed an Israeli jet, in response to an Israeli strike in Syria that hit close to Russian troops. However, communication between Israeli and Russian officials increased in the wake of the attack, with Moscow summoning the Israeli Ambassador to Russia, to explain what happened.
Even in 2015, Russia and Israel held talks on “deconfliction,” with the aim of “preventing misunderstandings” over Syria, suggesting that both countries always intended to manage their differences.
Israel and Iran have long been engaged in a “shadow war” and further escalations may occur, which could pose challenges to Moscow.
Still, Israel and Iran have long been engaged in a “shadow war” and further escalations may occur, cow’s policies. Indeed, Israel, along with the United Kingdom and the United States, blamed Iran for an attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker off Oman’s coast on July 31, suggesting such frictions may be increasing.
The tanker was owned by the London-based Zodiac Maritime, which Israeli shipping mogul Eyal Ofer runs, and Israel claimed it had “hard evidence” that Iran had hit the ship. Although Iran denied any involvement, recently elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett deemed the alleged Iranian attack a “serious mistake,” and warned “we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way.” Israel’s new Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the country’s military is ready to act against Iran to deter it from future attacks. And with Iran recently electing its own hardline President, Ebrahim Raisi, tensions are indeed likely to continue.
Russia’s Power Play
Rather than countering Israel, Russia’s primary focus may be to keep Iran on its side, particularly considering the uncertainty over the country’s future leadership.
Asides from assessing the implications of Raisi’s election in June, Moscow may also have concerns regarding the future of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Khamenei, who is 82 and has been Supreme Leader since 1989, has shown a willingness to cooperate with Russia, despite Moscow largely failing to prevent Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria until now. Russia might worry that any potential successor could alter Iran’s foreign policy, forcing Moscow to contend with the Islamic Republic.
“In my view, Moscow may be acting not because it is upset with the Israelis, but because it may be fearful of losing influence with Iran unless Tehran sees it undertaking some sort of action to restrain Israel,” Dr. Mark Katz, Professor at the George Mason University, told Inside Arabia.
“But if Khamenei is near death, or the Russians think he is, they may fear that Iranian unhappiness with Russia may influence both the selection and the policies of the next Supreme Leader. The selection of someone who is more skeptical of Russia than Khamenei could complicate Moscow’s Middle East policy,” added Katz.
As Russia has often shown in the past, such as through its engagement with Hamas during Israel’s conflict on the Palestinian Gaza strip in May, it is keen to play a balancing act, in order to bolster its clout as a regional power broker. Therefore, it will try to maintain a similar approach in its dealings with Iran and Israel.
Russian media has promoted the idea of a tussle with Israel, to present an image of Russian assertiveness in the Middle East.
Thus, even if the recent claims of growing Russian frustrations over Israeli strikes in Syria are valid, Moscow may merely be seeking to influence external observers. In the past, Russian media has promoted the idea of a tussle with Israel—all of which was directed at Western audiences, in an attempt to present an image of Russian assertiveness in the Middle East.
Ultimately, despite speculation over a shifting relationship, Russia may be willing to compromise with Israel. Though this is dependent on the current status quo between Israel and Iran remaining intact. Should there be an eventual change of leadership within the Islamic Republic, or if tensions between Israel and Iran escalate beyond current levels, Moscow would face a new dilemma and may have to adapt its measured policies between the two adversaries.