Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not be in power if it was not for his two most powerful allies: Iran and Russia. Iran has enjoyed close ties with Syria’s ruling Assad family since its 1979 revolution. Taking “Death to Israel” as one of its main revolutionary slogans, Iran has for decades used Syria as a route through which to arm Hezbollah militants fighting Israel from Lebanon. Russia’s friendship with the Assads dates back to the Cold War, when Moscow supplied arms to Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, after he took power in a 1966 coup. But Russia, now the senior partner in a joint mission to save Assad from armed rebels, wants no quarrel with Israel. As long as Iran needs Russia in Syria, it will have to keep its Hezbollah allies, and “Death to Israel,” on ice.
One of These Things is Not Like the Others
Russia, as a major power and a rising influence in the Middle East, need not heed the enmities of its junior allies. It maintains strong economic ties to Israel, where over a million Russians live. While Russia recognizes it can’t replace the United States as Israel’s main ally, Russian-Israeli diplomacy is strong. As Russia has grown friendlier with Iran in recent years, it has taken care to reassure Israel.
“If you track back the whole process of improving relations with Tehran, Moscow was in constant contact with the Israeli authorities,” says Nikolay Kozhanov, non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “In February 2015, during Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman's visit to Moscow, the Russians clearly stated that they are going to take into account Israeli interests, whatever decisions are made on the Middle East.”
When Russia began bombing Syria in September 2015, the Israeli Air Force raised concerns about crowded airspace in a region where it gathers intelligence and carries out occasional airstrikes to prevent weapons trafficking to Hezbollah. But whereas Russia has given the US Air Force very short notice of its movements in the air, it had coordinated much more carefully with the Israelis.
“After the Russians started moving in, mechanisms to cooperate, and to ensure there are no mishaps in the air, became established,” says Yaakov Lappin, a Jerusalem Post journalist and defense analyst. “There was an understanding that the Russians would carry out their own air operations, Israel will do what it has to do, and one would not interfere with the other.”
Now, Lappin believes, the Israeli Defense Forces have come to see Russia as a restraining influence on Hezbollah. “Russia has actually been seen, purely in the Israeli-Hezbollah context, as something that might be a stabilizing factor, a responsible sort of entity that has arrived,” Lappin says. “Russia's interest right now is to concentrate its campaign in Syria, and obviously any clash that would spin out of control between Israel and Hezbollah would be a huge distraction to that. It's in Russia's interest that Hezbollah keeps its attention focused on Syria.” Hezbollah’s responses to recent Israeli actions, such as its strike on Hezbollah operative Samir Kuntar in Damascus last December, have been muted.
Don Corleone in Damascus?
Russia’s alliance with Iran and Syria makes it an ally of Hezbollah, too. While Moscow handles its foreign policy through official government institutions, and any communications with Hezbollah are likely to go through Tehran, there may be little difference between Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps forces fighting in Syria. “Hezbollah is a contingent of the IRGC, that is the simplest way to understand it,” says Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, and director of Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University. “The Revolutionary Guards are in full coordination with the Syrian army and the Russians.”
Shehadi is skeptical of suggestions that Russia restrains Hezbollah out of beneficence toward Israel. “On the contrary, Hezbollah has now got protection,” he says. “It is Israel that is restrained. So basically, if you are going to attack Hezbollah, you are dealing with Russia. It is naive to think that Russia is deterring Hezbollah, because Russia can now use Hezbollah whenever it wants. It's like the mafia.” If Russia prevents Hezbollah from attacking Israel, Shehadi says, it will impose a price. “When Don Corleone protects you, it has a cost. When the US protects Israel, the cost is on the US, but when Russia protects Israel, the cost is on Israel.”
Hezbollah also has its own reasons for limiting hostilities with Israel. “Hezbollah certainly does not need another war with Israel,” Shehadi says, referring to the armed conflict in 2006. “Its constituency will not accept another war with Israel where their homes will be destroyed for Hezbollah to stand over the rubble and bang on its chest.” Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s legitimacy depends on its maintenance of an anti-Israeli posture. “Hezbollah doesn't need to conquer Israel or occupy Tel Aviv,” Shehadi says. “Hezbollah needs to be able to show off its resistance credentials by pinpricking Israel from time to time and annoying it, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah needs to be able to wag his finger and make threats, without fearing any consequences.”
“Death to America” before “Death to Israel”
Russia and Iran need each other in Syria. Russia dominates Syrian airspace, while Iran secures territorial gains against anti-Assad opposition groups at ground level. However Iran’s military brass may feel about their Russian ally’s cordial coordination with the Israelis, they will have to live with it. Apart from being the biggest power in Syria, Russia has set out a stall of military equipment Iran wants to buy. “Russia wants to sell Iran military hardware,” Lappin says. “They are about to move the S-300 air defense system into Iran. Of course Israel is going to have to monitor that and see what Iran's capabilities are.” But while Israel can deal with most Russian hardware in Iran, Lappin says, its “red line” is the transfer of such material to Hezbollah.
There is no reason to think Putin will break his promises to Israel, or allow any of his junior allies to cross its “red lines” any time soon. “If the Iranians try to use Hezbollah or the southern territory of Syria as a ground for launching any provocations against Israel,” Kozhanov says, “we will definitely see the Russians reacting very harshly to this Iranian move that, in turn, can cause troubles in Russian-Iranian relations, rather than in Russian-Israeli relations.”
And whereas Iran sees Syria as a vital link to Hezbollah and a means to maintain an ideological struggle against Israel, Russia sees Syria as a small part of a more ambitious bid for regional power. “This is not about a small base in Tartus,” Shehadi says, referring to a Russian naval base built in Syria in 1971. “When it comes to Russia, the target is the United States. So the Russian game is to drive the United States out of the region.” Iran, he says, fits well into that scheme. “Iran has humiliated US sailors by making them kneel in front of cameras and beg for forgiveness,” he says, referring to an incident in the Persian Gulf in January. “Perception in the region is that the US is a wuss, basically. Its enemies think it is powerless, and its allies think it is unreliable. Russia is stepping in to fill the vacuum.”