The Moscow-Washington Mideast tango

Relations between Russia and the new US administration will have a significant impact on regional dynamics – and Israeli interests.

Ukranians protest against Putin (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ukranians protest against Putin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A GAP exists between Russia’s image as a power implementing international political activism that challenges the world order and between its real capabilities and intentions.
Russia lacks superpower abilities in the military and economic fields and, in order to meet its security and geopolitical interests, it has adopted a new approach to international relations while striving for a strong foreign and security ideology. Given its limited resources, Russia's main effort has been to keep conflicts limited and to implement power through the application of political and economic pressure.
The main Russian strategy is to create crises in the international arena in order to employ them to its political advantage via the combined use of soft and hard power, including limited combat operations. Ukraine was just one arena for Russia to achieve its geopolitical goals. Another was the Middle East where it used limited military intervention to exploit the opportunities that arose from the Syrian civil war.
The Ukrainian crisis was a result of Russia’s aspirations to draw that country into its sphere of influence and defend its geopolitical interests. These actions, especially the annexation of Crimea, were seen in the West as aggression and expansionist in intention. For its part, Moscow perceives Western policy and interests as contradictory to its ambitions to return to great-power status, as attempting to undermine Russia in the post-Soviet space and to destabilize the domestic Russian arena.
Russia’s policy, however, brought about a Western response in the form of economic sanctions aimed at hurting its economy and undermining its political stability.
Since September 2015, Russia has been involved on two fronts ‒ Ukraine and Syria ‒ changing the geopolitical calculus. Developments concerning the Syrian crisis became the main topic on the international agenda.
Russia’s involvement created a new regional strategic paradigm, increased international tensions and challenged the existing world order.
RUSSIA’S INTERVENTION in the Middle East, which could only take place in view of the United States’ regional fatigue, reflects its desire to promote its international standing, its view of Western aspirations as contradictory to its interests and its policy of expanding global conflicts and increasing tensions with the West on the international stage.
While Russia decided to become a player in the Syrian crisis in order to become an influential regional power and fight Islamic State – which it sees as posing a direct challenge – the main reasons for Moscow’s involvement are to provide levers and bargaining chips vis-à-vis the West, in particular in view of the Ukraine situation and Western sanctions. Finally, Moscow’s intervention is also aimed at creating cooperation with the West to establish a new regional order following the end of the Syrian civil war and the defeat of ISIS.
Russian forces deployed in Syria are operating as part of a coalition that includes the Syrian Army, still loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad; Iran, which desires to create a Shi’ite crescent stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean; Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias and, lately, Turkey, which has mended fences with Moscow and is taking part in military operations in Syria where this converges with its interests. Differences remain within the coalition regarding the future of the Syrian regime and a future regional order – differences that make Russia’s relationship with other actors all the more complicated.
The Russian-led coalition has managed to exploit military achievements on the ground to generate a political process and has succeeded in bringing the combatants to the negotiating table. The next stage is an arrangement for a future order in Syria following a political settlement and the defeat of ISIS.
Recent developments suggest that Russia has concluded that federalization of Syria would be the most realistic solution. In any event, Moscow’s main goal will be to take advantage of the situation in the Middle East and to stay there as an influential power.
The political dialogue over Syria’s future started at the end of 2015 in Vienna; continued during 2016 in Geneva; and then, after a long intermission, in 2017 in Astana, where talks are ongoing, so far without visible results. It seems that only via cooperation with the US will it be possible to achieve positive results.
With Russia now running the show in Syria, it has promoted itself to the status of an influential regional actor, and by constant maneuvering between the other actors in the arena has successfully managed to upgrade relations with most of them.
However, despite creating a new international reality and challenging the regional strategic paradigm, Russia has not fully succeeded in promoting the global goals it hoped to achieve by becoming involved in Syria.
The West is unhappy with Russia’s involvement in Syria, and views Moscow’s aspirations as contrary to its interests. The US and Europe disapprove of Russia’s aims in the region and have refrained from joint action, thus increasing Russia’s international isolation, which together with economic sanctions are affecting Russia’s economy and political stability.
The regional situation thus far remains unpredictable. Russia is stuck in the Syrian mud and it is unclear whether it will cooperate with Western actors. Russia must offset this damage because one of the main objectives of its intervention in the Middle East is advancement of dialogue with the West and termination of Western pressure on Russia.
Everything now depends on the future policy of the new US administration.
Donald Trump’s election victory was received by Russia with satisfaction and optimism, in particular because of his statements on his willingness to cooperate with Moscow. After all, Russia is under increasing Western pressure that likely would have worsened had a Democratic administration been reelected. The major issue on the international agenda now is stabilizing the global policy of the United States including its relations with Russia.
It seems, indeed, that it is in Trump’s interest to de-escalate the conflict with Russia and promote compromise without making strategic concessions. Prior to the election, Trump hinted that Ukraine and Syria were not priority for the US and that a resolution favorable to Russia could be reached in both arenas.
Trump’s positive dispensation toward Russia evoked concern among those who would prefer continued application of pressure on Moscow. Among them, the last US administration, its supporters, members of Congress and many in Europe. They think Trump should act from a position of power and in close cooperation with NATO, and are trying to establish facts on the ground, which would make it difficult for Trump to change the previous course of action toward Russia.
However, in mid-February Trump appeared to make a U-turn on Crimea, tweeting that Obama had been too soft on the issue, with his spokesman adding that the president expected Russia to “return” Crimea.
ON ONE hand, it is possible that Trump`s intention is continued confrontation with Russia. On the other, perhaps he was only trying to calm his numerous opponents in the US and Europe who accuse him of pallying up to Moscow. Nevertheless it appears that what we are seeing is a tough opening stance vis-à-vis Russia and one can see a connection to the Middle East that rejects trading Russian concessions in Syria for Western concessions in Ukraine.
Russia, despite its tough image, is under pressure in the international arena and, in the end, would prefer to compromise with the US. Thus, Moscow can be expected to try and reconcile with the new administration on the basis of mutual concessions.
While we will have to wait and see what the future policies and actions of the Trump administration will be, there is no doubt that policy will affect the Middle East and all processes currently underway, including Russian involvement in Syria and, possibly, Russian-Israeli relations.
The Russian presence in the region poses new challenges for Israel right on its border and forces it to reevaluate the rules of the game in the region. Israel now must live side by side with the Russian military presence amid increasingly unstable regional realities.
The main challenge to Israel derives from the fact that Russia operates in Syria as part of a coalition with Israel's main rivals ‒ Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
This coalition creates potential friction and requires appropriate solutions. Indeed, it brought about mutual Israeli-Russian deconfliction understandings that, so far, have proved reliable. However, Israel is concerned about developments expected in the region, particularly about the possibility of the growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian arena, which are liable to generate conflicts of interest and tension between Russia and Israel.
Israel has to take into account that, in the evolving reality, Russia will continue to play a significant role in the region. Thus far, it seems that Russia's interests are in preserving good relations with Israel and preventing a military collision.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia in early March. The trip follows four high-level Israeli visits to Russia in 2016 by Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, as well as a visit by Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev to Israel. Netanyahu and Putin were expected to discuss ongoing military coordination and possibly strategic coordination on the future design of Syria and perhaps new ideas for the region that may have been raised between Netanyahu and Trump.
Amid the complex web of regional interests, Netanyahu will have to spin a course for Israel. 
Zvi Magen, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, is a former Israeli ambassador to Russia