Last month, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. The two hailed the relationship between their countries. Putin expressed his hope for continued strengthening of ties between his country and the Jewish state which has taken place over the past 20 years under his watch.
Nuance is key to understanding Israeli-Russian relations, especially within the context of Middle Eastern security crises. On many regional and international dossiers, there is agreement between Tel Aviv and Moscow. But on other files, the Israelis and Russians disagree, as exemplified by the 2020 Karabakh War.
The situation in Syria is one area where Tel Aviv and the Kremlin have found much common ground.
The situation in Syria, where both the Israelis and Russians have played significant roles as external powers during the country’s nearly 11-year civil war, is one area where Tel Aviv and the Kremlin have found much common ground. Israel and Russia are likely to continue seeing bilateral cooperation vis-à-vis Syria as serving both the Jewish state and the Kremlin’s long-term interests in the Levant.
Since 2013, Israel has bombed different areas of Syria on countless occasions. Thus, the safety of Russian military personnel has been an important factor driving Moscow to see a working relationship with the Israelis in Syria as highly important. With the Israelis bombing targets of the Syrian military and Iranian-backed non-state actors fighting on behalf of Assad’s regime, Moscow has wanted to ensure that Israeli operations in Syria never resulted in any Russian deaths or injuries.
Back in September 2015, right before Russia began its intensified military intervention in Syria, Tel Aviv and Moscow agreed to a deconfliction mechanism in order to share the skies. Put simply, that meant working to minimize any risk of possible mid-air incidents. From both Israel and Russia’s perspectives, such efforts have been successful.
“The most practical aspect of the Russia-Israel relationship in Syria is that Russia can keep its forces out of harm’s way during Israel’s recurrent airstrikes against Iranian-aligned forces in the country,” explained Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane, in an interview with Inside Arabia. “There’s a bonus that is its developing relations with a close US ally which right now isn’t producing a whole lot of tangible effects, but which Moscow, in the long term, would like to continue.”
Israel also sees the practical aspects of cooperation with Russia vis-à-vis Syria as beneficial for its own interests, especially in terms of avoiding confrontations with a great power. While having spent years waging a shadow war against Iran-aligned groups in Syria, the Israelis have been able to avoid any clashes with the Russians whom they don’t see as their enemy. “This stands in stark contrast to Turkey whose strategy in Syria has resulted in several serious military confrontations with the Russians,” said Bohl.
Contributing to Israel’s desire to enhance its cooperation with Russia in Syria is a belief that Moscow should serve as a bulwark against Iranian influence.
Another dynamic contributing to Israel’s desire to enhance its cooperation with Russia in Syria is a belief held by governments of numerous countries that Moscow (and only Moscow) should serve as a bulwark against Iranian influence in the conflict-ridden Arab country. That said, Tel Aviv understands that if this is possible, it would be part of a longer-term development and that the Russian leadership cannot easily eradicate Iran’s hand from Syria. This leads us to important questions about how Israel and Russia’s working relationship vis-à-vis Syria impacts Moscow’s partnership with Iran, the power that did the most to help Russia secure the Syrian government’s survival.
The Islamic Republic’s View
Israeli strikes against Iranian or Iranian-backed forces in Syria have at times received Russia’s condemnation. But that has not always been the case. According to Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, “Some argue that the Kremlin might discretely be hoping for Damascus to request [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah’s] dignified but phased withdrawal—in this context, under the duress of Israeli airstrikes—as part of a compromise solution for ending the war.”
“The Putin administration has never been as sympathetic to the Syrian regime or to its allies as much as it is assumed by the Syrian regime and its supporters,” Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, told Inside Arabia. Dr. AbuKhalil went on to state that “it has become increasingly clear to the Syrian regime and its allies that Putin has his own agenda,” which often overlaps with the interests of Israel. “There is, however, now a feeling that the Putin administration is becoming more critical of Israeli aggression in Syria itself. That is changing the perception among some.”
There has been some anger among officialdom in Tehran regarding perceptions of Russia not doing enough to stand up for Iran vis-à-vis the Israeli shadow war in Syria. But such friction between the Iranians and Russians over this sensitive issue has been limited because “Iran realizes that neither Tehran nor Moscow are in a position to firmly stop the Israeli covert air war in Syria,” Bohl told Inside Arabia.
“Iran realizes that neither Tehran nor Moscow are in a position to firmly stop the Israeli covert air war in Syria.”
“Surprisingly, the Iranian axis in the Middle East has been able to adjust [and] tolerate the close relationship between Russia and Israel and their cooperation,” explained Dr. AbuKhalil. “[Iranian officials] are more pragmatic than people assume. They are deriving benefits from Russian intervention in Syria. If that goes along with Russian cooperation with Israel, they are willing to accept that and they have. Putin still gets good press in the media of Iranian assets in the Middle East.”
Nonetheless, it is worth considering the possibility of Moscow permitting such Israeli actions to occur in Syria to serve Russia’s interests in being the broker of a long-term political settlement to the conflict that requires compromises from all the actors involved, including Israel and Iran. Within this context, Russia and Iran’s conflicting interests in post-war Syria could come to the fore and perhaps raise tensions between Moscow and the Islamic Republic.
Prospects for Long-Term Israeli-Russian Alignment in Syria
Looking ahead, one can expect Israel to remain highly incentivized to work with Russia vis-à-vis Syria. “There’s a massive Russian diaspora living in Israel that has gradually come to command sizeable influence in society and some parts of the permanent bureaucracy, including the formulation of foreign policy,” said Korybko. “President Putin is also very well respected in Israel for his resolute opposition to anti-Semitism, fascism, and historical revisionism connected to World War II.” Korybko asserts that “Israel has every reason to pragmatically expand its relations with Russia, especially since this could give it some leverage to better balance its historical relationship with the US.”
Statements by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and others “always prioritize security for the State of Israel.”
“[Russian officials] always want to come across as not being hostile to Israel,” explained Dr. AbuKhalil. “The [Russians] understand the significance of Israel to the West, especially to Washington, and they always like to present an image of pro-Israel policy by the Russian government,” he told Inside Arabia. “The more that Russia interferes in Middle Eastern affairs, especially on the Syrian regime, the more it tries to deflect criticisms by Israel and its supporters that it is any way harming Israeli interests.” Dr. AbuKhalil added that this is why statements by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and others “always prioritize security for the State of Israel.” Yet he caveated this statement by explaining that “Israeli intervention and military attacks have gotten to the point where it’s hurting the perception of the Russian role in Syria among Syrian [regime] supporters.”
Israel should be realistic in its expectations for Russia directly countering Tehran’s hand in Syria. The Kremlin continues to see a grave threat in the form of various violent Sunni extremist groups in Syria such as the Islamic State, and Moscow has strong incentives for working with the Iranians in the counter-terrorism domain. Not lost in the equation are other files such as Afghanistan and tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which leave Putin’s government wanting to maintain positive bilateral relations with Iran for a host of reasons. The Kremlin is aware that any Russian actions in Syria that are deemed to be directly aimed at weakening Iran will risk undermining Moscow’s partnership with the Islamic Republic in ways that the Russian leadership will probably want to avoid.