Russia has made itself the arbiter of events in Syria. Its military intervention and use of intensive bombing allowed it to change the balance of forces on the ground and save the Assad regime. But the Assad regime and its Iranian patron are no prize. True, the Iranians aim to remove all vestiges of American influence in the Middle East—and that is consistent with Vladimir Putin’s objectives.
However, Iran’s aim of building pressure and threats against Israel does not accord with Putin’s views. That is one reason that the Russians, at least until now, have given the Israelis a free hand to strike Iranian and Shia militia targets in Syria. The question is whether this will continue now that the Russians lost a plane and fifteen of their servicemen. It was, of course, not the Israelis who shot the plane down but Syrian surface to air missiles that did so.
Russia’s defense and foreign ministries have blamed Israel because they say it carried out attacks against Syrian targets in Latakia while Russian aircrafts were in the vicinity. When Syrian air defenses shot a barrage of rockets in response, they hit the Russian plane. While Putin speaks of many mistakes leading to the downing of the aircraft—a formulation that could include the Israelis, Syrians, and his own forces bearing responsibility—the Israeli military delegation that went to Moscow showed that Israelis planes had, in reality, already returned Israel when the Russian plane was downed.
Two points should be kept in mind at this time. First, the Russians have put themselves in the middle of the conflict. By this, I refer not just to the war in Syria, but also to the collision course that Iran and Israel are on. Iran is determined to create in Syria what it has in Lebanon: control over the government and more than a hundred thousand rockets. And, Israel is determined to prevent that. Until now, the Russians have given both the Israelis and Iranians a free hand. And, that leads to the second point or question. Will the Russians now seek to constrain Israeli freedom of action? And, if it does, will Iran now seek to exploit that possible opening to send in more advanced missiles to Syria? Already, the Israeli military is suggesting that they will strike as needed against Iranian weapons deliveries and developing military infrastructure.
What is missing in this discussion is the United States. Historically, the Israeli position was that they would deal with any regional threats on their own, but counted on the US to counter or block any actions or threats from countries outside the region. Today, the Trump administration has not only left the Israelis on their own to counter the Iranians and the Shia militias in Syria, but also to manage the Russians.
The irony is that the Israeli military actions give the US leverage with the Russians. The Trump Administration should use it. It should be conveying to Putin that Russia is now caught in the middle in Syria. The US is prepared to help ease the situation and work with Russia but only if Russia acts to impose a series of red-lines on the Iranians in Syria. These must include no Iranian/Shia militia military bases in Syria; no further provision of surface to surface missiles to the Syrians or Iran’s forces in Syria; no plants in either Syria or Lebanon that could fabricate advanced guidance systems for the existing rockets in both countries; and buffer zones free of Iranian and Shia militia forces opposite Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
Can the Russians impose such limits? They certainly have the leverage to do so. Consider the effect of the Russians saying that if the Iranians are not responsive or violate these limits, Russia will do nothing to impede Israelis operations; will not turn on their air defense radars during those operations; will provide no air cover to any Iranian, Shia militia or Syrian military actions or moves; and will not permit Iranian or Shia militia forces to be positioned close to Russian bases.
Given the tough responses of the Russian defense and foreign ministries to the Israelis over the downing of the plane—which did not abate even after Putin’s more temperate statement suggesting a number of mistakes—it seems likely that Israel is going to face efforts from the Russian military to impose some limits on where, when and how Israel can operate. At a minimum, Israel is likely to be asked to give more forewarning to the Russians before any strikes. Will the Russians really not alert the Syrians and Iranians to such warnings?
Israel’s leaders won’t compromise their ability to prevent the Iranian consolidation of a land corridor through Syria nor will they accept the transfer of qualitatively new weapon systems from Iran that pose an unacceptable threat to the Jewish state. Something will have to give.
My prescription: the Trump administration needs to get off the sidelines and use the leverage it has. It needs to remind the Russians of the risks they might now be running, and that we are willing to work with them in Syria but the price is creating real limits on the Iranians. Yes, the Russians cannot and will not even try to force the Iranians to leave. But they can impose limits—even reciprocal limits in which Israel would stop its strikes in return for Iran’s fulfillment of the aforementioned commitments.
The establishment of such mutually understood red-lines might even then be used to launch a political process in Syria. Nothing will transform Syria any time soon, but steps that stop the march toward an Israeli-Iranian collision is not a bad place to start.