How was that Israeli plane shot down last Saturday? Was it as per a Russian decision to draw new red lines for Israel, telling Tel Aviv what it may or may not strike in its war-torn neighbour? Or was it an attempt to lure Iran into new rules of engagement, as the pace and scope of Israeli strikes aiming at reducing Iran's military presence in Syria intensify? Or was it all a misjudgement? Regardless of all of that, we are now facing new facts imposed by the consequences of the clash that was witnessed in the skies of Syria and occupied Palestine.
The first of these facts is Israel's attempt to shift from a mere "opportunist" or "game hunter" in the Syrian war to becoming a major player, trying to impose its agenda and conditions on post-war arrangements and the outcomes of any possible political settlement.
Second, this development complicates Russia's ability to manage the conflict in Syria. It now has to make more effort to manage the contradictions between its three associates — Turkey, Iran and Israel — who compete in the parts of Syria it controls, especially that no one dares to approach the areas east of the River Euphrates, which is America's share. This was clearly demonstrated by the firm response to the attempt to target the Syrian Democratic militia near Deir Al-Zour earlier this month.
Last year, after the battle of Aleppo, Russia managed to establish a balance between the two main competing regional powers in Syria — Turkey and Iran — by turning them into partners in the Astana approach through which it attempted to impose its vision of a solution on Syria. To a large extent, Russia has succeeded in playing on the contradiction of interests between these two partners, and has used their great need to come to an understanding with Moscow and to balance America's policies towards them through the Kremlin. When the Russian agenda required the weakening of the opposition groups on the ground to force them to accept the terms of a solution, Russia would give the green light to Iran to attack them; when things went towards a settlement, though, Iran would be stopped, while Turkey's role in marketing the solution to the opposition would be strengthened.
Finally, Russia ignored Iran's objections and allowed Turkey to launch Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, in return for a Turkish pledge to bring the Syrian opposition to the Sochi conference, among other things. However, failure to impose a solution in Sochi, and shooting down a Russian plane over Idlib, brought Iran's stock up again. In the same way, Putin managed the Iranian-Israeli paradox in Syria, allowing Israel to strike at convoys or strategic weapons depots belonging to Iran and Hezbollah, which Israel believes pose a threat to itself, but he prevents Israel from striking facilities belonging to Iran and its allies which are meant to support the Syrian regime against the opposition. In other words, Russia accepts the Iranian presence in Syria only if its aim is to support the regime, and allows it to be hit if it does not.
With his plan faltering, and the US tendency to maintain a military presence east of the Euphrates, Putin still needs Iran's military involvement in Syria, and this need is expected to increase in the coming period as tensions mount with Washington. There is increasing concern that Syrian opposition groups will be supplied with US weapons that threaten Russia's control of Syrian airspace and Putin seems to be lenient towards adopting the Iranian approach calling for resolving the battle of Idlib, and preventing Turkey from controlling it. For these reasons, Putin does not want to see Israeli strikes that can affect Iran's ground capabilities at this stage. If Israel can help him ease the tension with Washington, though, and bring him closer to the US administration and its influence, things might be different, and the need for an Iranian military presence in Syria would be reduced.
Until this happens, Putin must manage the conflict between his three associates in Syria with great precision, where Iran stands against the presence of Turkey in the north, Israel stands against the presence of Iran in the south and, in the east, Turkey and Iran oppose Kurdish ambitions, which are supported by Israel. It is a dangerous game but Putin does not seem to be missing any Arab players in it.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 14 February 2018
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