|#1876||1457||March 13, 2018||By Hirak Jyoti Das|
On 30 September 2015, after parliamentary approval, the Russian army coordinated with Syrian forces to admittedly target not only the Islamic State (IS) but also Jabhat al Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham and the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA)[i]. Russia notably enjoys cordial relations with all the main actors i.e. Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Syrian regime and recently Turkey and maintains a strategic naval base in Syria[ii]. The campaign was supplemented by tactical advisors and fighters from Iran and Hezbollah by providing training and coordinating military action with Syrian government forces. It reached a tacit understanding with Iran to rebuild the Syrian regime and with Israel to attack Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria that endangers its security. Over the course of two years, it suceeded in uprooting the organised control of IS and rebel forces without landing troops on the ground. Subsequently, on 11 December 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced to pull back its armed forces while retaining an air and a naval base in Syria[iii]. In this context, the article seeks to evaluate the strategic approaches adopted by Russia due to strategic volatility between Iran and Israel and analyse the repercussions in light of Russia’s military withdrawal last year.
Russia’s military exit and ‘Mission Accomplished’ declaration in its present stage is premature as the state of political stability in Syria remains bleak. The Sochi conference held on 30 January 2018 failed after Syrian opposition groups boycotted the event and the United Nations (UN) criticised Russia for circumventing the Geneva peace process[iv]. Meanwhile, Turkey has launched a fresh offensive in the third week of January 2018 to contain Syrian Kurdish militias that runs the risk of clashing with Syrian government forces and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces[v]. Crucially, the Russian withdrawal is propelling Iran and Hezbollah to entrench itself within the Syrian frontline provoking concerns over Israel’s northern borders. Israel has repeatedly raised alarm over Iran and its proxies’ attempt at inching towards the armistice line that borders Syria and Israel-occupied Golan Heights[vi]. Iranian political calculations are heavily invested in Syria’s future which aims to stabilise Bashar Al Assad’s regime; capitalise from its gains by setting up military infrastructures manned by its ally, Hezbollah; establish arms manufacturing facilities to build precision-guided missiles and rockets in Syria and Lebanon and gain control over a land corridor connecting Iran to Syrian port city of Latakia.
Since its involvement in Syria, Russia has reached a tacit understanding with Israel allowing Russian forces to undertake air strikes on IS and rebel targets; regain rebel controlled territories and rebuild Syria’s military capability[vii]. It also coordinates the safe passage of Russian planes over Golan Heights. Concurrently, Russia overlooks Israel’s periodic air strikes on Iranian supply routes to Hizbollah. Russia along with the US and Jordan demarcated the de-escalation zone in November 2017 creating a buffer between Iranian backed forces and Israel[viii]. Conspicuously, Israel has also provided support to few rebel groups such as Liwaa Firsan Jolan, Firqat Ahrar and sections of FSA and bombed Syrian government positions in Southern Syria in April 2017 to halt their campaign against these rebel forces[ix].
During the series of meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin most recently on 31 January 2018, Israel reiterated that Iran aims at “Lebanonization of Syria”and cautioned to halt its efforts[x]. This grim situation has been further complicated by the reported presence of an Iranian reverse-engineered Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone inside Israeli airspace on 10 February 2018[xi]. Syria denied these allegations and opined that the drone was in fact on a regular information gathering mission on IS positions[xii]. Israel in response conducted air strikes on 12 targets inside Syria and consequently, Syrian anti-aircraft counter fire shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet. This incident marked the most direct and dangerous confrontation between Israel and Iran. On the same day, Russia weighed inurging all sides to avoid escalation within and around the de-escalation zone in Syria. It called out Israel for violating Syria’s territorial integrity and endangering the lives and security of Russian servicemen[xiii].
Iran’s attempts at intruding Israeli airspace is puzzling as it may jeopardize the future of the 2015 nuclear deal and it has vehemently denied Israel’s accusations. Presently however, its security interests are intertwined with Russia. Besides being a strategic ally in Syria, it perceives Russia as a potential partner in global gas market. Moreover, as a permanent UN Security Council member and supporter of the nuclear deal, Russia could diplomatically benefit Iran[xiv].
Israel fears that Russia willnot risk antagonising Iran by openly siding with it and therefore would be unwilling to restraint its military ally in Syrian battleground. Adding to it, Russia has installed air defence systems and air bases which could hinder Israel’s access in Syrian airspace. After the 10 February incident, Israel’s policy is focused on use of disproportionate force to counter any real or perceived threat; maintaining the buffer zone; eventual regime stability and evacuation of all foreign forces in Syria including Iran and Hezbollah. On 18 February 2018, speaking at Munich Security Conference, Netanyahu displaying a piece of the drone claimed “Iran as the greatest threat to our world”[xv]. The risk of conflagration of conflict especially from Israel’s side is further heightened by domestic political situation within Israel. Due to Netanyahu and his family’s involvement in series of corruption charges who is awaiting the final decision of the Attorney General for indictment, the government may further tilt towards a hawkish approach to divert public opinion towards an external threat[xvi].
The conflict of interests between both sides is fundamental which cannot be resolved in the foreseeable future. While a full-scale war between both states is unlikely, Iran would continue to defy Israeli rules of the game and Israel would counteract and raise the spectre of military conflict. Following the 10 February incident, the prospect of escalation reflects a new normal in the Syrian crisis.
From Russia’s perspective which is witnessing a presidential election on 18 March 2018, the latest incident draws attention to the crumbling nature of strategic understanding it reached with Iran and Israel and displays its incapability to contain the interests of all sides within Syria[xvii]. It is a relatively new player in the region with limited experience and reconciliation efforts initiated by the state would require managing a multi-track approach and simultaneous engagement with all the regional actors and substantial investment in time and resources. Several commentators have also observed that while full-scale confrontation is highly dangerous and threatens its accomplishments, a low-scale conflict could serve Russia’s interests to expand its influence in the wider region by distracting other regional players. However, it would be challenging for Russia to control or modulate the conflict to suit its interests. Being the dominant power in Syria, it is too early to conclude its strategic objectives in manoeuvring Israel-Iran tensions and the present approach encapsulates a mixture of policy based on murky red lines, short-term policy priorities and vested interests. It has the special responsibility of restoring mutual deterrence between both states based on reinforcing the de-escalation agreement distancing Iran-backed forces from the armistice line; monitoring and arresting Iran’s arms facilities and its military infrastructure; aligning Israel’s security interests with Syrian regime stability and prohibit Israeli offensive that can amplify the magnitude of the existing conflict in Syria.
[i] Al Jazeera Report, “Russia carries out first air strikes in Syria”, Al Jazeera, 30 September 2015, Accessed 15 February 2018, URL: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/russian-carries-air-strikes-syria-150930133155190.html
[ii] Maria Beat, “Turkey-Russia re-rapprochement after Afrin offensive”, Daily Sabah, 28 January 2018, Accessed 15 February 2018, URL: https://www.dailysabah.com/op-ed/2018/01/29/turkey-russia-re-rapprochement-after-afrin-offensive
[iii] Alec Luhn, “Vladimir Putin announces Russian withdrawal from Syria during visit to airbase”, The Telegraph, 11 December 2017, Accessed 16 February 2018, URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/11/vladimir-putin-announces-russian-withdrawal-syria-visit-airbase/
[v] BBC News, “Afrin offensive: Turkey warns Syria against helping Kurds”, BBC News, 19 February 2018, Accessed 21 February 2018, URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43107013
[vi] International Crisis Group Report, “Israel, Hizbollah and Iran: Preventing Another War in Syria”, International Crisis Group, 7 February 2018, Accessed 19 February 2018, URL: https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/182-israel-hizbollah-and-iran-
[viii] Jordan Times, “Jordan, partners sign de-escalation agreement”, Jordan Times, 11 November 2017, Accessed 19 February 2018, URL: http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/jordan-partners-sign-de-escalation-agreement
ix] Stanley Johny, “The Israel factor in Syria”, The Hindu, 22 February 2018, Accessed 23 February 2018, URL: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-israel-factor-in-syria/article22818024.ece
[xi] Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash, “The drone shot down by Israel was an Iranian copy of a U.S. craft, Israel says”, The Washington Post, 11 February 2018, Accessed 21 February 2018, URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/israel-confirms-down
[xii] The Hindu, “Israel downs Iranian drone, strikes Syria”, The Hindu, 11 February 2018, Accessed 21 February 2018, URL: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-international/i
[xvi] NogaTarnopolsky, “Netanyahu in deeper peril as more Israeli officials are arrested on corruption charges”, Los Angeles Times, 18 February 2018, Accessed 22 February 2018, URL: http://www.latimes
Hirak Jyoti Das