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Russia seeks to maintain good relations with all Middle Eastern countries, including Israel – a nation that Iran sees as a “cancerous tumor” that will “undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed”. So far the Kremlin has successfully balanced between The Jewish State and the Islamic Republic, but in the coming months Moscow may have to get involved in resolving some very difficult problems in the turbulent region.
Officially, Russia and Israel are neither allies nor strategic partners. Yet, without Russia’s tacit approval, Israel would unlikely be able to conduct air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria on a regular basis. Ever since Moscow started playing an active role in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russian troops in the Middle Eastern nation never used sophisticated S-400 missile systems to prevent Israeli jets from targeting Iran-backed militias in the war-torn country. The Kremlin is quite aware that such an action would deteriorate its ties with Israel, and could have a serious impact on its positions in the region. Israel, on the other hand, carefully chooses its targets in the Syrian Arab Republic, and has established a military hotline with Russia to coordinate air force operations over Syria to avoid clashes.
In September Russia asked Israel to encourage the US to agree to hold high-level trilateral talks on Syria. At this point, the exact date of a meeting is uncertain, but given that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Russia on October 22 and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is very probable that Russian, Israeli and American military experts will soon discuss the situation in the country where the civil war has been raging for 10 years. Moreover, the very fact that Bennett was accompanied by National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, and the prime minister’s military secretary, Major General Avi Gil, is a clear indication that the war in Syria was on the agenda.
According to reports, Putin and Bennett also discussed Iran’s nuclear program, as well as a number of topics dealing with politics, security, and economics.
“Our ties with Russia, which were established 30 years ago, are very special because of the past, but also because of the present and the future”, said Israeli Prime Minister at the start of the meeting.
Indeed, over the past 30 years Russia increased its positions in Israel’s neighborhood, namely in Syria, and Putin had a good working relationship with former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as the country’s Prime Minister for 12 years. Prior to the summit, the Russian leader told Bennett the pair had “many problematic issues”. Iran and Syria are certainly among them.
One day before the meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, unknown forces attacked the US occupied 55 kilometer (34 mile) zone in Syria’s Al-Tanf with five projectiles. The American base is located near the Iraqi border and within miles of the Jordanian border, and it is believed the attack came as a retaliation for Washington’s support to Israeli airstrikes on Syria from Al-Tanf no fly zone. The base is also located on a road serving as a vital link for Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon and Israel. The incident could speed up Russian, Israeli and American efforts to hold high-level trilateral meeting in the near future.
In the meantime, Israel is expected to keep striking Iranian positions in Syria, as well as Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip. Despite good relations with Russia, The Jewish State will remain Washington’s major regional ally, although more diversification of the US policy in the Middle East can be expected. Such a policy could include a potential revision of American relations with Turkey, as well as a possible new nuclear deal with Iran – a move that Israel sees as a serious threat to its national interests.
Russia is one of the countries that negotiated Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement, and it is entirely possible that Moscow will play a very important role in any future deals. Meanwhile, Russia and Israel will likely try to find a common ground on Syria. Large scale aerial drills that Israel and Iran are separately holding these days, suggest the two regional powers are actively preparing for a confrontation –not necessarily a direct one – be it over Syria, Lebanon, or the Caucasus.
Although Moscow aims to preserve friendly ties with both Israel and Iran, one thing the Kremlin and Israeli leaders have in common is a desire to reduce Iranian influence in Syria. Presently, Russia is the main ally of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad, but Iranian influence in the country is still very strong. Assad, for his part, is successfully balancing between Russian and Iranian interests in Syria, but if tensions between The Jewish State and the Islamic Republic lead to a large-scale regional conflict, Tehran will likely demand open and direct support from Damascus. Such a move would undoubtedly put the Syrian leader and his Russian backers in a very difficult position. For the foreseeable future, Russia will likely keep acting as an informal mediator in the Middle Eastern turmoil, especially given that Iran refuses to directly negotiate with the United States, and does not recognize Israel. It is worth noting that just two days before the summit between Putin and Bennett, Iran’s military chief of staff General Mohammad Bagheri visited Moscow where he met with Russia’s top military officials. In other words, regional and global actors seem to be preparing for a potential escalation in the Middle East, and Russia is seeking to ensure it has a place at the table.