No ‘Russian option’ for Israel in Syria

Why the failed Russian Sochi conference last month matters to Jerusalem.

PARTICIPANTS ATTEND a session of the Syrian National Dialogue Conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, last month. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters) (photo credit: SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS)
PARTICIPANTS ATTEND a session of the Syrian National Dialogue Conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, last month. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
The clear failure of Russia’s “Syrian National Dialogue Conference” in the Black Sea resort of Sochi shows the limitations of the policy adopted by Moscow with regard to the Syrian civil war.
Since Israeli diplomatic efforts to contain the westward advance of Iran and its proxies in Syria are to a considerable extent dependent on the notion of Russian potency and effectiveness in this arena, decision-makers in Jerusalem will have been watching the unfolding events at the conference with interest and some concern.
So what happened at Sochi, and what went wrong?
THE RUSSIANS first of all failed even to bring the main protagonists of the war around the table.
The main, UN-recognized Syrian opposition formation, the Syrian Negotiation Commission, did not attend. One senior member of the commission described the conference as a “meeting between the regime and the regime.” An opposition website produced a picture of a beaming Syrian President Bashar Assad shaking hands with himself as a representation of the Sochi gathering.
The rebellion is of course losing ground to the regime and facing eclipse, but it still controls Idlib province and most of Dera’a and Quneitra provinces, as well as enclaves elsewhere.
The United States, France and Britain also did not attend the gathering, seeing it as a Russian attempt to circumvent the UN-sponsored process in order to bring about an outcome more favorable to the Assad regime.
Representatives of the Kurdish Federation of Northern Syria, which controls Syria east of the Euphrates, were not at the conference. The Syrian Kurdish leadership has sought to maintain working relations with Moscow, despite the Kurdish cooperation with the US in Syria. But Moscow’s acquiescence to the current Turkish assault on the Kurdish Afrin canton in northwest Syria has led to widespread anger among the Kurds. Kurds belonging to rival factions also did not attend.
So, from the outset, the 1,600 attendees at the conference consisted of supporters of the regime, “tame” oppositionists from the Moscow and Cairo platforms, plus a delegation representing the armed opposition, which was there because of its dependence on Turkey. The latter 100-strong group, led by Ahmed Tomah, then refused to leave the airport on arrival in Sochi, protesting at the display of regime flags only at the conference. They returned to Turkey.
In an unusual scene, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was then heckled while giving his speech by supporters of the opposition critical of Russian bombing in Idlib province.
The conference concluded with the issuing of a number of resolutions, including the appointment of a new 150-member committee to discuss a new constitution for Syria. The opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission immediately rejected the establishment of the committee.
Thus far the Sochi conference joins the long list of ineffectual talking-shops on Syria. Sochi showcased the extent to which Russia, despite its successful turning of the tide in the Syrian civil war, has not emerged as the broker of Syria’s future.
The Russian military intervention was successful precisely because of its deliberately light footprint and the limited nature of its aims. But while Russian air power and special forces turned back the advances of the rebels, Moscow has not delivered a final crushing victory for the regime. Nor has it nullified the differing agendas of other external powers active in the Syrian arena and possessing proxies on the ground – including the US, Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
Sochi’s failure contains within it a lesson both for Russia and more generally: Wars can sometimes be won on the cheap, if the war aims are tailored to fit the limited resources committed. General diplomatic settlements of conflicts, however, cannot be reached by shortcuts. If you aren’t able to offer sufficient incentives to the remaining players on the field (or ensure the defeat and eclipse of one or another of them), you are in danger of appearing somewhat hapless as your efforts to bring the conflict to a close flounder.
This fact has been painfully made apparent throughout the Syrian war in the ongoing efforts of the UN-led Geneva process to bring the conflict to an end. The Russian effort, which began at Astana and foundered conspicuously in Sochi, now looks not so different.
WHY DO the events at Sochi have implications for Israel?
At the present time, the key ground ally of the Assad regime is not Russia. It is Iran. The Russians maintain only a light footprint on the ground in Syria. The tens of thousands of Iran-supported Shi’a militiamen in the country represent a key concern of Israel.
Specifically, given the Iranian possession of a contiguous line of control across Iraq and southern Syria, Israel is concerned at the extension of that line of control to the border with the Golan Heights, in the event of continued rebel defeats.
Construction of facilities close to the border and the employment of large numbers of client militiamen in the event of renewed Israeli hostilities with Hezbollah would be the potential results of the Iranians establishing themselves further west.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, have made clear that Israel will not permit this. The question is how it is to be prevented.
The main achievement of the Russian diplomatic track on Syria until now was the announcement of four “de-escalation” zones in the country, one of which covered the area adjoining the border with Syria, in July of last year.
Israel made clear at that time that it was not convinced that the deal would keep the Iranians out of southwest Syria. The subsequent push by regime and pro-Iranian forces toward the border in the Beit Jin area in December last year confirmed the Israeli view of Russian inability or unwillingness to pressure Iran to keep its proxies east.
The deconfliction agreement between Israeli and Russian forces means that Moscow does not interfere with Israeli actions against Iran-associated forces and facilities in southwest Syria.
This is significant, but it does not address the main point. The Russian intervention from September 2015 confirmed Moscow’s ability to prevent the destruction of the Assad regime. Recent diplomatic moves culminating in Sochi prove, conversely, that Russia cannot impose its preferred agenda on other forces, and is nowhere close to making itself the hegemonic power in Syria.
This means that the Israeli hope of Russian pressure to keep Iran from the border must be in vain, which in turn leaves a number of possibilities: 1. That Israel acquiesce to the activities of Iran and its associated militias in the area immediately east of Quneitra crossing – which is highly unlikely. 2. That Israeli threat declarations and covert action continue to deter the Iranians from concerted attempts to establish themselves in this area – which is possible. 3. That such declarations and covert activities do not have the desired effect, at which point Israeli decision-makers would have to choose between acquiescing (see 1) or a concerted military strike.
It is not possible to predict which of these possibilities will play out. But the proceedings in Sochi put paid to the notion that the Russian presence is sufficiently strong to offset the possibility of direct Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria, through the imposition of a Russian guiding hand on Iranian actions. No such guiding hand exists. So the matter will be decided, over the ruined soil of Syria, by Israel and Iran themselves.
The writer is a freelance security analyst and correspondent for IHS Jane’s and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (Routledge: 2017).