Herb Keinon, writing in the Jerusalem Post, argues that Russia could be a big loser if, as seems increasingly likely, Israel is drawn into a fight with Iran in Syria. He explains:
Russia moved forces into Syria in 2015 with one purpose in mind: Save Syrian President Bashar Assad. And since then, Moscow has spent billions of rubles and spilled Russian blood to do just that: Help the Assad regain control of the country from Syrian rebels and Islamic State.
And now, just as Moscow seems on the cusp of achieving its goals in Syria and serving as kingmaker in determining post-civil war arrangements, the last thing it needs or wants is for largescale Israeli military involvement that could threaten everything it hoped to gain.
Moscow wants to stabilize Syria right now. A confrontation between Israel and Iran there would badly destabilize the country and could cost Russia its most important asset in the region.
But can Russia head off such a confrontation? According to Keinon, when Benjamin Netanyahu, during his periodic visits to Moscow, pushes Vladimir Putin to prevent Iran from establishing military bases in Syria that threaten Israel, Putin’s standard answer is that Iran is sovereign country, not a client state of Russia. Israel thinks Putin is being disingenuous — that if Russia wanted to, it could dictate to Iran.
I’m not convinced of this. Iran is determined to build puts its military presence in Syria. Its regional ambitions require this. And Putin is right, Iran is not his client.
Russia is not without leverage, of course. It is not Iran’s military protector in the strong sense. However, its weapons systems help protect Iranian nuclear facilities and its air power assists Iranian forces in Syria. Moreover, Russia can protect Iran from economic sanctions, or at least the full weight of them.
However, with the sanctions relief provided by Barack Obama, plus all of the cash he forked over, I question whether Russia’s economic leverage would be sufficient to induce Iran to pull back in Syria. Indeed, the fact that Iran has taken such an aggressive posture towards Israel despite Netanyahu’s repeated requests that Russia call of the mullahs, and despite his warnings as to how Israel will respond if Iran doesn’t back off, suggests to me that Russia can’t control Iran. Or maybe Russia simply doesn’t share the view that conflict between Iran and Israel will materially harm its interests.
Now that conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria seems to have broken out, I suppose we’ll find out how badly Russia wants to curb it and/or whether it has the power to do so.