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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Israel puts the complex Russia-Iran relationship to the test in Syria

As Tehran shows its teeth, there is growing evidence that Moscow is prepared to act against its erstwhile ally, writes Con Coughlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a meeting in Sochi last year. Alexey Nikolsky / EPA / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a meeting in Sochi last year. Alexey Nikolsky / EPA / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool

One of the more intriguing puzzles to have emerged from Syria’s long-standing civil war is the unholy alliance that has developed between Russia and Iran.

On one hand, Moscow and Tehran have become close allies committed to achieving the same goal – namely the survival of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

On the other, a distinct wariness exists between the two countries over their long-term goals. For Moscow, the objective is relatively simple: to maintain the vital strategic military bases at Tartus and Latakia that date back to the Cold War era when Damascus was about Moscow’s only dependable ally in the region.

The Iranians, by contrast, nurture far more sinister ambitions. They regard the Syrian conflict as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand their political and military influence in the eastern Mediterranean, thereby enhancing their ability to dominate the Middle East while at the same time improving their capability to target their sworn enemy, Israel.

And it is the latter aspiration that now appears to have provided the first serious test of the Russia-Iran alliance in Syria.

The Russians have shown that they are quite happy to ignore Tehran’s expansionist ambitions in the Middle East, particularly when they challenge the long-established American hegemony. From the Kremlin’s point of view, any actions the Iranians take to cause discomfort to key American allies like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states is welcome, as it raises questions about just how serious the Trump administration is about defending their interests.

Similarly, Iran’s attempts to fashion a pro-Tehran political settlement in Iraq are deemed to be helpful as they might frustrate Washington’s hopes of establishing a long-term relationship with Baghdad.

The Russians, though, are a great deal more circumspect when it comes to Iranian meddling in the affairs of Israel, a country with which the Kremlin has an ambiguous relationship, to say the least.

On one level, the Russians have reservations about dealing with the Israelis because of their close ties with Washington, especially since Donald Trump was elected president.

On another, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have developed a close personal accord, one where the two leaders are able to work together on issues of mutual interest.

A good example of this working relationship emerged this week with regards to the visa issues plaguing Roman Abramovich, the billionaire Russian oligarch who is known to enjoy good relations with Mr Putin. Mr Abramovich, who is perhaps better known as the owner of Chelsea Football Club, is experiencing difficulties renewing his visa to remain in the UK, where he owns a multi-million pound residence, because of the new demands being made by authorities to tighten up on Russian activities in the UK.

To bypass these embarrassing difficulties, Mr Abramovich has been given Israeli citizenship, thereby giving him free rein to visit the UK whenever he wants because there are no visa restrictions between the UK and the Jewish state.

Now the close relationship between Mr Putin and Mr Netanyanu is paying dividends in Syria where, following deepening concerns in Israel about Iran’s growing military strength on the Israeli border, there is growing evidence that Moscow is prepared to act against its erstwhile ally Iran.

Recent reports suggest that the Russians, who are said to control about fifty percent of the country, are contemplating a deal whereby the Iranians and their Shiite allies withdraw their forces from the Syria-Israel border.

The latest intelligence reports say there are now around 2,000 Iranian officers and advisers – many of them members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps – based in the country, and around 9,000 militiamen drawn from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, as well as 7,000 fighters from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. In addition Iran is said to have shipped tens of thousands of medium and long-range missiles to Syria, positioning the majority of them close to the Syrian border where the Iranians have constructed a network of military bases.

Russian disquiet about Iran’s long-term objectives in Syria surfaced after Israel launched a series of air strikes against Iranian positions in early May, thereby raising tensions between Iran and Israel to the highest level for many years.

At the time the Russians said they would not interfere with the Israeli air strikes, even though, technically, they were taking place in an area the Russians are supposed to be protecting on behalf of the Assad regime, and where they have deployed highly sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems.

But then, we should not really be surprised by this ambivalent attitude on the part of Moscow. There have been several occasions during the course of the Syrian conflict when Moscow has turned a blind eye to Israeli acts of aggression against Iran’s military assets in Syria, and it seems as though Moscow intends to adopt a similar approach if the Iranians continue with their efforts to threaten the Israeli border.

For the bottom line is that the Kremlin has no interest in picking a fight with the Israelis.

The Russians’ primary interest in Syria is – and always has been – the protection of its Syrian military bases. The Kremlin is not prepared to tolerate any act that gets in the way of achieving this central mission.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor