The might of Russia in the Middle East

  • paula_slier
When countries cannot talk to each other, they send messages through actions. This was the case on Saturday.
by PAULA SLIER | Feb 15, 2018

For the first time, Tehran – without the help of Hezbollah and other Iran-supported proxies in the region – flew a drone into Israeli territory.

Although it was intercepted, the message was clear: Tehran would no longer allow Jerusalem to conduct airstrikes in Syria without facing the consequences. This action has turned growing regional tensions up a notch.

Until now, every few weeks or months, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has been striking at what it is convinced are Iranian supplies of high-quality weapons. These weapons are believed to be making their way through Syria to the Lebanese Hezbollah group fighting alongside Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

This was the first time Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot directly back.

Jerusalem’s response was swift. The air force was sent in, and in two waves of aerial bombardments, destroyed almost half of all of Syria’s air defence systems.

The message was clear: Israel would not stand idly by if its security was threatened. This is a pledge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly made.

But there was a second Jerusalem message. After one of its fighter jets was shot down – ultimately crashing in the north of the country – Israeli officials claimed the missiles were “Syrian”.

While this is true, it fails to acknowledge that the ultimate control of the skies in Syria is in the hands of Moscow. This has been the case since September 2015, when Russia first became directly militarily involved in the country.

It is safe to assume that the Russians knew about the Iranian drone when it took off very close to their air-control centre in the Syrian city of Palmyra. The Russians would have also had real-time knowledge that the Syrians were responding with an unprecedented barrage of anti-aircraft missiles after Israel attacked the site of the Iranian drone.

So, while technically correct, the second Israeli message failed to acknowledge who the real military power in Syria is. And herein lies Israel’s tacit admission that it accepts the Kremlin’s domination across its border.

It’s not for lack of trying. Netanyahu regularly flies to Moscow and has held countless meetings with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The Russians are well aware of Israel’s security concerns. But it’s quite clear who has the upper hand between the leaders. It was only after a telephone call between Putin and Netanyahu on Saturday that senior Israeli officials reportedly decided not to continue with their military actions in Syria.

After the call, Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement urging restraint and calling on all sides to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria”.

The statement objected to Israel’s violation of Syrian sovereignty, while ignoring the provocation by Tehran in sending a drone into Israeli air space in the first place.

At a first reading, it does seem as if Russia is taking Iran and Syria’s side – and the message is that Jerusalem will have to tread more carefully in future.

Netanyahu doesn’t have many cards up his sleeve. He’s made it clear that Israel will not accept Iranian bases on its border. Until now, Russia has acquiesced. But what can Netanyahu do if Putin changes his mind on this score? 

Just as worrying for the Israelis is if the Russians were also to change their mind regarding Israeli airstrikes in Syria. Each time the IAF strikes a target across the northern border, the Russians, well aware of it, have said and done nothing. Netanyahu knows he cannot push Putin too far.

What’s unclear is Moscow’s long-term plan in Syria. Until now, it has allowed Tehran a certain amount of leverage to operate there, but has prevented that country from setting up large bases or positions on the Israeli-Golan Heights border. But for how long?

The only current certainty is that there will be another flare-up. For months the tensions and rhetoric from all sides has been shoring up, and the recent escalation brought the region within a hair’s breadth of war.

On Saturday, Moscow made it clear it would not stop the Syrian president’s military from trying to shoot down Israeli planes in future. No doubt Jerusalem will strike again, but the consequences of doing so could be severe.

And Tehran? What message did the Iranians hear on Saturday? Jerusalem’s acquiescence to Moscow, or its hardball approach to its own security? That answer will become clear when Iran next chooses to act.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.



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