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“Syrian formula” for Israel: will cooperation with Russia help to restrain Iran?  

Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: timesofisrael.com

Russia’s military operation in Syria has changed the reality not only in the region. Besides the dynamic development of the processes in the Middle East, the counter-terrorist mission of Russia’s Aerospace Forces has spotlighted the prospects of Russia’s relations with some important actors. Special mention should go to Israel with its traditionally pragmatic approaches to everything that affects Moscow’s interest in the conflictogenic region.

Russia launched airstrikes against the terrorist groups operating in Syria less than a month ago and the Russian and Israeli militaries have managed to take quite impressive combined efforts. The parties launched constructive cooperation on September 21 when Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Moscow on a working visit to meet with President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu was accompanied by the chiefs of the General Staff, Defense Intelligence and National Security Council, who usually avoid leaving the country simultaneously in view of their important positions. It was an unprecedented delegation for Israel’s contacts with Russia over the last years. Perhaps, Israel clearly understood yet in mid-September that Russia was preparing an operation in Syria, which dictated a proactive model of behavior to Tel Aviv.

Immediately after September 30, the Russian-Israeli military contacts have become more frequent. A delegation of Russian militaries led by Nikolai Bogdanovsky, first deputy head of Russia’s Armed Forces General Staff, left for Israel on a two-day visit and held consultations with Israeli colleagues to coordinate activities in Syria. The sides agreed in principle upon the mechanism of coordinated actions during Netanyahu’s visit in September. It remained for the parties to agree upon the cooperation elements and put them in force. The official name of the bilateral mechanism, which the parties are still improving, was given by Israel’s Defense Ministry: mechanism for security measures between armed forces of Russia and Israel in the region.

Any interstate format of such cooperation suggests an exchange of intelligence data, first of all. Unlike U.S. that was cool to the idea of coordinating the actions of Russian Aerospace Force and U.S. Air Defense in Syria, Israel initiated a sophisticated dialogue with Russia on military issues. Moscow and Tel Aviv, namely Russia’s command control center for the military air group at Khmeimim airfield in Latakia and the command center of Israel’s Air Force, use a “hot line” to inform each other of the airstrikes to prevent misunderstandings, clashes between the air forces of the two countries in the region. The military pilots of Russia and Syria immediately started training to ensure secure flights over Syria.

As to the exchange of intelligence data, the sides do not hurry to make their agreements public. The parties will be operating on the basis of a well-coordinated mechanism. The Israeli military will be providing Russia with intelligence information on positions of the extremist groups in Syria referring to the sources at Israel’s Defense Army, the country’s mass media reported earlier. Such reports from open sources must be downplayed, as Israel and U.S. have close military-political ties. Israel will not act independently and without preliminary consultations with the U.S. Administration. Anyway, this will not hold Tel Aviv from a comprehensive dialogue with Moscow and coordination of actions in Syria.

For obvious reasons, representatives of Israel’s General Staff cannot join the new intelligence center in Baghdad with staff from Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran.  Israel adopted the only right decision for such situation.  Bilateral coordination of actions with Russia has no alternative for Israel, considering a range of military and political factors.

Unlike Turkey and Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Israel does not consider the operation of Russia’s Aerospace Force as affecting its interests in the region. Unlike Washington, Tel Aviv feels no enmity for Moscow’s actions in Syria either. Israel took Russia’s decision without emotions trying to assess pragmatically all the pros and cons of Russia’s main attack forces in the west of Syria for itself.

Israel’s political circles and experts continue discussing the possible benefits and potential losses from Russia’s military buildup in Syria. Opinions vary. Giora Eiland, national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thinks Russia’s alliance with Iran, Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah can deescalate tensions between this axis and Israel. Hezbollah will at least have to reckon with Moscow every time when situation on the northern borders of Israel escalates, Eiland says (1).

There are different opinions too. For instance, former ambassador of Israel to Russia Zvi Magen does not overestimate the Russian factor in restraining Iran and Hezbollah from anti-Israeli outbursts. From the Syrian controlled part of the Golan Heights, directly on the border with Israel, the troops of both Iran and Hezbollah may emerge and start acting unpunished, Magen says (2).

Meantime, both the outspoken critics and supporters of Russia’s military operation in Israel’s neighbor Syria agree that Iran’s strengthening in the region of the Syrian conflict will affect the national security of the Jewish country. Israel’s perception of what is happening in Syria depends on the activity of its “existential enemy” in the Middle East in immediate neighborhood of its borders.

The recent media reports about Iran’s plans to create a military base in Syria have fairly disturbed the Israeli authorities. These reports contain not only propaganda elements. Israel’s intelligence closely follows the situation around Iran’s military buildup in Syria. There are up to 3,000 (by some data even more – up to three brigades comprising nearly 10,000 soldiers and officers) servicemen of Iran in Syria that borders with Israel, and the issue of their permanent deployment of such massive contingent will emerge sooner or later.

Tel Aviv has not missed the signals Iran gives to it while building up its forces in Syria. DEBKAfile web portal close to Israel’s intelligence has spotlighted the Iranian television’s recent footage of deep underground tunnel packed with missiles, launcher units in Iran. 

Therefore, partnership with Russia in Syria, coordination of action in the region is important to Israel. Such cooperation helps Israel settle many military and political matters of concern. It was not for nothing that the Chief Operation Department of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff said about the plans to create a full-fledged military base in Syria. They say it will be a multi-function – land, air and maritime - facility of the Russian Federation in the territory of Syria. Russia’s military build-up in Syria indirectly deprives Iran of such opportunity or at least “pushes’ it from Israel’s borders. Perhaps, Iran will have a permanent military base in Syria, but it will be deployed far from Israel – Syria border. It is likely to be not far from Damascus.

Israel cannot let Hezbollah gain a stranglehold in Qalamoun, a mountainous region bordering with Lebanon. During the last months, Shiite fighters of Lebanon have been engaged in severe trench war against anti-Assad forces. The current balance of forces on the given part of the front meets Israel’s interests. In case Hezbollah breaks the balance, Israel will lower the boom. Israel is not likely to launch air strikes at Hezbollah targets in that region, though such scenario should not be ruled out either. Anyway, they can always find a reason -  Israel’s striking aircrafts keep in the focus of attention the supplies and transfer of advanced models of weapons and military hardware to Hezbollah by Iran and Syrians. Israel is concerned not only over the growing military presence of Iran and their Lebanese co-religionists in Syria  (3), but also over the changes in their tactics. Yet not so long ago, Iran’s tactics in the fight against Jihadists was mainly defensive, in fortified sectors mainly around Damascus. However, this tactics has changed with Russia’s air strikes backed with the naval forces in the Caspian Sea. This tactics is gradually shifting from counterstrikes to large-scale offensive operations.

Another point of view is that Tel Aviv informed Moscow of its concerns over not only Iran’s military build-up in Syria, but also Hezbollah’s possible stranglehold in Qalamoun and the adjacent territories. How can Russia alleviate Israel’s concerns over activity of the Lebanese Shiites?  The question remains open. One thing is for sure – Israel will not let its adversaries meet on its border. Palestinian HAMAS on the west, Hezbollah’s dominance in the north and east amid Iran’s military build-up in the region appear to be inadmissible developments for Israel’s leadership.  Israel’s military doctrine suggests a possibility of waging at once two wars in the west and north. However, Iran’s build-up along with the heated conflict with HAMAS and Hezbollah could be extremely dangerous a formula for Israel.

The prior task of Netanyahu’s Cabinet is not to let this happen.  This is what made Tel Aviv openly cooperate with Moscow, though Israel is well aware that the common interests with Russia in Syria are temporary.  Planning a long-term strategy of the Russia-Israel rapprochement on the “Syrian platform” would run contrary to the current realities in the Middle East. Israel’s enmity towards Iran’s any activity in the region is so big that it affects also its relations with Moscow. Nevertheless, the mutual confidence between the Russian and Israeli leaderships has just increased recently boosting the two countries dialogue over Syria.

The arrangements made by the Russian and Israeli politicians and militaries by present can become a certain model for driving U.S. and other Western countries at cooperating with Moscow.  Measures for safe flights in Syria, which Washington insists on, are not enough. If Obama cannot admit his failures in Syria and overcome the known stance of the ‘aggressive majority’ of the Republicans in both the houses of the U.S. Congress on Syria, he can learn from his ally Israel’s experience of cooperation with Russia.

The situation in Syria and around is very dynamic. Suffice it to mention the ‘sudden’ visit of President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow on October 20. The West still criticizes Russia’s actions in the Middle East, though it does it inertly, not the way it did “after Crimea.” At the same time, quite interesting developments can be observed in the north and northeast of Syria, where the Kurdish factor grows rapidly. Reliable sources say Iran has its part in rapprochement of the political representatives of the Syrian Kurds and the U.S. Administration. The rapprochement was brokered by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan based in Sulaymaniyah Province, Iraqi Kurdistan.  It should be recalled that U.S. coordinates the assistance to the “people’s self-defense units” of Syrian Kurds from the operative center in Sulaymaniyah, where Iran’s has big influence.

U.S., Iran, Russia and Israel admit that the Kurds of Syria should be backed politically and with weaponry. It turns out that even such antipodes as Iran and Israel can have common interests in Syria. Yet, the search for stabilizing elements in the war-torn Syria will not remove the deep discrepancies of Tehran and Tel Aviv. Instead, Russia and the United States will get more chances to prevent a direct armed conflict of Israel and Iran in the region.

The current political landscape and resources of influence in the Middle East, Russia’s military presence in Syria really meets Israel’s interests. For conclusion, one can say with confidence that “existential threats ” to Israel from Iran will remain rhetoric as long as Russia is present in Syria.

(1) Nadav Pollack, Why Israel should be Worried about Russia’s Role in Syria // The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 8, 2015.

(2) Alexander Birman, "Neither friend, nor enemy: will Israel support Russia’s operation in Syria?", (Russian link) http://www.forbes.ru, October 8, 2015.

(3) Reportedly, Iran deployed up to three brigades of Islamic Revolution Guard Corps in Syrian provinces of Homs and Hama to launch a large-scale offensive in the central and northern part of Syria. As to Hezbollah, insiders say it is able to send additional 1,500-strong units to the Syrian battleground, if necessary.

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