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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

The last thing Moscow wants is to have Iran lead it by the nose into war with Israel

For now, Russia has the role of trying to restrain Iran, its partner in the campaign to prop up the Assad regime, while accommodating Israel, writes Alan Philps

An attack on Sunday on a base near the city of Hama caused a huge fireball and an explosion so fierce that it registered on seismographs. Abody Ahfad Khaled / Reuters
An attack on Sunday on a base near the city of Hama caused a huge fireball and an explosion so fierce that it registered on seismographs. Abody Ahfad Khaled / Reuters

There is not much that unites America and Russia in the seemingly endless Syrian conflict. The Russians have all but achieved their goal – to preserve Bashar Al Assad in power, boost their standing as a regional power and to secure naval and airbases in the Mediterranean. By contrast, Washington is in disarray, unsure whether to keep its 2,000 soldiers in Syria and if so, for what purpose and how long.

So for the moment, Moscow is up and Washington is down. But there is one aspect in which they share a common problem – they both have unruly allies who are keen to lead them by the nose.

On Monday, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a bravura stage performance to convince US President Donald Trump to make good on his promise to quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Mr Netanyahu may have been preaching to the converted in the White House: Mr Trump has long vowed to withdraw from the agreement and will have a chance to do so on May 12 when he has to decide whether to stay in it or re-impose sanctions on Iran.

There was little new in Mr Netanyahu’s evidence from Iran’s atomic archive. It is common knowledge that Iran had lied about its plans for a nuclear weapon in the years up to 2003. Indeed, the basis of the deal – with its spot checks on Iranian nuclear facilities – was “an assumption that Iran would try to cheat”, according to James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence.

The substance of Mr Netanyahu’s argument on the nuclear deal matters less than the regional context, which is that the Israeli government and its military chiefs are now in rare agreement on the need to drive all Iranian forces out of Syria.

Where Israel goes – and its aircraft have been regularly attacking suspected arms caches of Iran and its allies in Syria – the US has to follow. Like it or not, the US is seen to be part of this risky Israeli strategy and the impression will grow even stronger if in less than two weeks, Mr Trump withdraws from Iran nuclear agreement.

For the moment, Russia has the role of trying to restrain Iran, its partner in the campaign to prop up the Assad regime while accommodating Israel. While Russia’s goal is the restoration of the Syrian state, Iran’s gameplan is different – to build a military strongpoint inside Syria. The justification for this is opening a new front against Israel. The last thing that Moscow wants, as the major power in Syria and controller of the airspace, is to have Iran lead it by the nose into a war with Israel.

Moscow denies any suggestion of mediating between Iran and Israel. Whatever it is doing to lower the temperature would come to nothing if it became public. But the frequency of Israeli raids seems to be rising. An attack on Sunday on a base near the city of Hama caused a huge fireball and an explosion so fierce that it registered on seismographs, suggesting that the target included a large quantity of explosives. Such a serious attack suggests that the Israelis fear Iran and its allies are stockpiling weapons for a major strike, even though the Iranian-allied forces in Syria would inevitably come off worse in such a battle.

For now, the Israelis seem to believe they can attack at will because the Iranians are not in a position to retaliate. This might be because Iran does not want to provoke Mr Trump ahead of his May 12 decision on the nuclear deal.

But this stalemate is unlikely to last. Once Mr Trump has decided to pull out of the nuclear deal, as seems likely, then the risk of major conflict between Israel and Iran can only rise.

The former head of Israeli intelligence, Amos Yadlin, said in a recent newspaper interview that this month was going to be the most dangerous May since 1967, the run-up to the Six-Day War.

There are several possible triggers: Mr Trump’s May 12 decision on resuming US sanctions on Iran; the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, which violates the consensus against recognising the city as Israel’s capital before a final peace agreement; and the 70th anniversary of Al Nakba on May 15, marking the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. And all this at a time when more than 40 Palestinian protesters at the border fence in Gaza have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Although Arab protests against the embassy move have been low-key so far, a triumphant opening ceremony could play into Iran’s hands. “Allowing Iran to pose as the protector of Jerusalem while Israel appears to be denying Palestinians their own capital there would be a huge mistake,” states Philip Gordon, a White House coordinator for the Middle East during the Obama administration.

Even if tensions subside over the next 10 days, the question remains of how Russia will square its alliance with Iran and its promise to restore Syrian sovereignty with its commitment to Israeli security. The Israeli journalist Amos Harel speculates that the time may come when Moscow is “sick of receiving diktats from Jerusalem”. The proof of this would be Moscow finally agreeing to sell its S-300 air defence system to Syria, which would end Israel’s near-impunity in attacking targets in Syria.

That is the doomsday scenario, where Russia and America are dragged by their allies into a new war over Syria. There is, of course, an alternative, under which the old superpowers establish some red lines in Syria to regulate the Iranian presence which has existed since 1982. We are a long way from that and difficult times are ahead.