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Israel, Russia Working Against Iran With Syrian Reconstruction in Mind
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands at the start of their meeting in Sochi, Russia on Oct. 22, 2021. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Israel, Russia Working Against Iran With Syrian Reconstruction in Mind

Israel reportedly has attacked a series of targets in Syria that are affiliated with President Bashar Assad’s regime and Iran  

Israeli aircraft carried out attacks against military targets belonging to the Assad regime and its allies on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog group reported. The attacks resulted in material damage, but no casualties were recorded.

The bombing came after several attacks on targets associated with the Syrian regime in recent weeks, for which Israel has been blamed. Perhaps most notable was the death of a Syrian official last week, also attributed to Israel.

Midhat Saleh, a former member of the Syrian parliament and head of the Syrian Golan Heights Affairs Office, was reportedly shot dead by an Israeli sniper on October 16 in a Syrian village on the border with Israel.

Saleh was born in Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the contested Golan Heights on Israel’s side of the border, and previously spent 12 years in an Israeli prison after being convicted of acting against Israel’s security forces. He left for Syria after he was released from prison in 1998. Israeli media reported that Saleh was considered by Israel the middleman between the Assad regime, Iran, Hizbullah and Iran-backed militias in the Syrian Golan, assisting the Iranian entrenchment on Israel’s borders.

The Syrian state news agency SANA blamed Israel for the official’s death. The Israeli army, as is its policy, has not commented.

Russia is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has a military presence in the country; yet, Moscow has ignored the alleged Israeli attacks on regime targets. With these frequent attacks as a backdrop, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Friday. Israeli government minister Zeev Elkin, who was present at the meeting as he has been at all meetings between Israeli leaders and Putin in the last decade where he has also acted as translator, said that it was exceptionally warm. According to Elkin, the two leaders agreed on a continuation of Israel’s policy toward Syria, including its aerial attacks on targets in the country.

Iran is preparing for … a clash with Israel, building its infrastructure and arming Hizbullah and so Israel is acting against this

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line that “Israel acts exclusively against Iranian [and Iranian-affiliated] targets in Syria.”

“Iran is preparing for … a clash with Israel, building its infrastructure and arming Hizbullah and so Israel is acting against this,” he said. Russia and Israel have long been coordinated on this, while Moscow also has been cooperating with Tehran in Syria.

Two recent developments make Russia’s quiet support of Israel’s purported attacks on Assad’s army and officials understandable, Magen says. “Lately, there has been some tension in Syria because Iran would like to expel the others [Russia and Turkey] and remain alone to take over Syria,” he said, adding: “The Russians are likely not fond of this, to put it lightly.” Recent targets in Syria were not only linked to Assad, but also to Iran and its proxy, Hizbullah.

Magen also explains that a larger effort is being made to reach a settlement in Syria that would allow the war-torn country to gather up the pieces and begin rebuilding. This effort, in which Israel could be a partner, has been encouraged not only by the Russians, but also by the United States and parts of the Arab world. “This necessitates the expulsion of foreign forces from Syria,” Magen explained, and Iranian efforts at entrenchment in the country are in direct contradiction.

Israeli attacks on Assad are possibly convenient to Russia not only because they curtail Iranian greediness at the expense of their so-called partners in stabilizing Syria, but also because they lay the groundwork for a future settlement for the country.

The Syrian regime’s situation is generally on the mend

Dr. Joshua Krasna, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, and a Middle East expert at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, highlights two Russian interests that may be behind its attitude toward Israel’s attacks: bulwarking the Assad regime’s position and maintaining Moscow’s good relations with Israel. And these two factors happen to coincide, he says.

“The Syrian regime’s situation is generally on the mend,” Krasna told The Media Line, pointing to improving relations with other Arab states as an example. The Iranian presence in Syria, however, is a source of instability, not least of which is because of Israel’s active opposition to it. An escalation between Israel and Assad or his Iranian allies could significantly impact attempts at stabilizing the country. Working against Iran’s presence in Syria also has acted as justification for its improving ties with the Assad regime, Krasna explained.

However, he says, “I think that the Russians know much better than us that there is no real way to oust Iran within a short or intermediate time frame.” Iran and its proxies, Krasna explains, are deeply embedded in the Assad regime’s survival apparatus. Removing them swiftly could damage the regime’s standing. Acting to limit them and gradually lessen their influence, though, could be a path forward, and one served by Israel’s actions.

Israel’s ability to disrupt the work of Iran and its proxies in Syria is not the only reason for Russian willingness to coordinate with Israel. “The good relations with Israel are an asset” for the Russians, said Krasna. Keeping Israel’s interests and concerns in sight and settling disagreements behind closed doors both serve to preserve them.


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