Israel can do anything to Syria that it considers necessary to protect its own security and interests without fear of reactions beyond the predictable, or reactions that it can deal with and bear the consequences of. This is because Israel knows the ceiling for the responses of the active parties in Syria, both Russia and Iran. Moscow’s response to the Israeli air strike which killed some Iranians in Syria was simply to inform the Israeli ambassador of Russia’s alarm at the matter. Iran, meanwhile, did no more than fire a few missiles that can be described as more of a warning than a deterrent or revenge.
Israel has crossed every red line in Syria, while Russia and Iran have not set any red lines for confronting Israel since their involvement in Syria began. I am referring to hypothetical lines, such as Israeli planes flying in Syrian air space or hitting the regime and Iranian military bases. With the exception of the Khmeimim Air Base, there is nowhere off limits to Israeli strikes, including Damascus International Airport and all the military and security sites that Tel Aviv considers to be a source of danger.
It is easy to find a number of theoretical explanations for Russia’s behaviour towards Israel, which make its reaction appear to be so lenient. This includes the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Moscow, the presence of one million Russian Jews in Israel, and the fact that Russia does not want to distract itself from its main goal in Syria, which is to impose itself as a partner with weight to confront America and control the course of events and their consequences. All of this is for the purpose of achieving a well-known goal for Moscow, which is to put Russia in an advanced international position, beyond a regional force and becoming a centre for international decisions.
Despite this, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s keenness to achieve his goal of taking his country to the desired position has not been hindered by any considerations or calculations. Although he has economic relations and interests with Europe and Turkey, in many instances, since his involvement in the Syrian war, he has dealt with these parties based on a cliff-edge policy. He severed relations with Turkey and put it on the brink of war, while his relations with major European countries like France, Britain and Germany have also deteriorated.
At the time, this Russian behaviour was interpreted as an expression of Moscow’s calculation that it was on the brink of a historic opportunity limited to the term of a weak US President in Barack Obama. During this time it could create facts on the ground to establish itself as an effective state in the Middle East and then globally. This required considerable boldness from the Russian leader that would prompt him to challenge Turkey and Europe. Why, though, is Israel always taken into consideration? The logical explanation is that Putin has a problem with Israel that is bigger than the influence of the lobby and the million Russians in the country. The man rules with an iron fist and he is not known to give importance to any particular considerations. If Putin was certain that his weapons could challenge Israel, he wouldn’t wait a moment to do so, because he is the type of leader who believes in power to enforce respect, and that the world will never respect the weak and show them mercy. By attacking Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, Israel reduces Russia’s standing and weakens its powerful image.
Hence, Russia is not interested in a confrontation with Israel that will reveal many of its technological flaws. This is also probably the real reason for Moscow’s failure to supply Assad with the S300 missile system. This would be tested on the first flight of Israeli aircraft and there would be no room for manoeuvre. At that point, the prestige of its weapons would be tarnished, thus affecting its share of the global arms trade, which has become something Russia relies on to solve its financial crisis.
The matter is not much different for Iran, although its considerations are of another type. Tehran is not interested in confronting Israel under any circumstances. If it wasn’t for the media pressure and the embarrassment it faced in front of its people and the supporters of the “resistance” alliance, it wouldn’t have had to fire a single bullet at Israel.
Iran is acting according to its assessment of being on the verge of real and complete control over the region, especially in light of its allies’ sweeping results in the parliamentary elections in Iraq and Lebanon. This puts Tehran in a politically dominant position, and so it is interested in preserving this situation and not risking it by engaging in a war with Israel that could change the balance of power in a manner that does not serve its interests.
What matters to Iran in Syria is stabilising the Assad regime and not exposing it to any danger that might risk that stability. A war with Israel would be considered one such threat, especially after more than one Israeli official has said that Assad’s head would be the price of Iran’s use of Syrian territory in any war against Israel.
It does not seem that Iran is ready to risk all of its cards by waging war with Israel, especially Hezbollah, which provides a factor for pressure in negotiations more than being useful in the field. This proves that Hezbollah is being taken out as a main player in the conflict equation with Israel. The Lebanese group is being kept in reserve for fear of it being lost forever.
In addition to the previous considerations, there is an important factor behind Russian and Iranian reluctance for a war with Israel; the latter would be fighting an existential war. As such, it would be ready to throw everything into the ring, including its nuclear arsenal, unlike Russia and Iran, which would be seeking to improve their negotiating and international positions. Israel does not object to them doing this, provided they do not threaten its security and existence.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 22 May 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.