After the swap: Russia’s role in Syria and Israel’s policy

Russia has been an ally of the Syrian regime and of the Assad family for decades.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses the new members of parliament in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on August 12, 2020 (photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses the new members of parliament in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on August 12, 2020
(photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Russia played a key role in releasing an Israeli woman held in Syria. The full details of the exchange are not known, but the central role of Moscow is clear.
This is a reminder of Russia’s overall role in Syria and how it is able to facilitate aspects of the conflict. It is important to understand how Russia does this to potentially see where Syria is going in the future.
Russia has been an ally of the Syrian regime and of the Assad family for decades. It has a naval base in Tartus in northern Syria and Khmeimim Air Base in the same area. This Russian presence and support for the regime led Moscow to intervene in Syria in 2015. Russia claimed to be intervening to fight ISIS and other “terrorist” groups.
A year after Russia intervened, its role in keeping the Syrian regime intact was clear. Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, fell in December 2016.
By the summer of 2018, Russia had helped broker the collapse of the Southern Syrian rebel strongholds near the Golan Heights and Quneitra. Rebels left areas in Damascus and also pockets they held between Homs and Hama in May 2018. Russian intervention was not like the US intervention in Vietnam.
Despite American policy-makers such as ambassador James Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s envoy to Damascus who claimed the US could make Syria a “quagmire” for Russia, there was no quagmire because there was no massive Russian presence.
Russian sent air-force assets, drones, special forces, contractors and military police, but no huge divisions of men were coming.
Russia’s real intervention was intended to shift the Syrian conflict and leverage it into regional influence. Moscow encouraged the Astana talks with Turkey and Iran; soon they were running to Moscow and the resort city of Sochi to ask Russia what to do next.
Russia sold Turkey S-400s to create daylight between Ankara and Washington, feeding on Turkey’s growing authoritarianism and conspiracy-minded leadership.
As Ankara became more pro-Russia and more pro-Iran, Moscow moved to be the arbitrator of who could have what. When Turkey demanded Afrin and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds, and needed the airspace to use its F-16s, Russia consented in January 2018. The trade-off would be that the Syrian regime would get more slices of Idlib.
Russia, Turkey and Iran conspired to remove the US from Syria by trying to break US relations with its partners on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces. In October 2019, it appeared they had gotten what they wanted when US president Donald Trump agreed to leave Syria.
AS THE US withdrew, the Russians backfilled the American bases. If Jeffrey’s quagmire theory was to work, it was unclear how Russians running into former US bases was part of the plan. But US diplomats, insiders and experts had all been marshaled to oppose the “endless” war in Syria.
It wasn’t actually an endless war for the US; only a handful of US soldiers were there, and a successful partnership with the Kurdish-led SDF had worked well. But former US ambassador Robert Ford argued that America should leave, essentially saying, Let Russia, Turkey and Iran have Syria.
As Turkey and Russia worked together in Idlib with joint patrols, Moscow sought to harass the remaining US forces in eastern Syria. Cat-and-mouse patrols squared off in 2020.
Then there was Israel. Russian President Vladimir Putin has good relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Putin, a keen reader of people, has likely been watching Netanyahu since the late 1990s. It is widely believed that he respects Israel and understands its concerns.
Russia has a carrot-and-criticism approach with Israel on Syria. In November 2019, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Israeli airstrikes were the “wrong move” in Syria. Later that month, Russia even appeared to expose details of an Israeli airstrike by alleging Israel flew over Jordan.
Moscow also blamed Jerusalem after Syrian air defense shot down a Russian IL-20 aircraft in September 2018 near Latakia. Fifteen personnel were killed, and Israel apologized.
Russia, the US and Jordan also agreed to a ceasefire deal in November 2017 that is widely seen as having paved the way for the eventual collapse of the Southern Syria rebels. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov appeared to indicate that foreign forces, including Hezbollah, could leave Syria when the war ends.
Those comments were in February 2017. In August 2018, the Russian Military Police was supposed to head to Southern Syria to help keep the peace. Russia supported the 5th Corps in Southern Syria, which includes former Syrian rebels. This is designed to “de-conflict” and also reconcile former Syrian rebels. It hasn’t always worked.
It is important to recall that in 2017, Israeli media reports said Russia had rejected a request to keep pro-Iranian groups 60 km. from the Golan border. But in August 2018, Reuters said Russia claimed that Iranian forces had pulled back to 85 km. from the Golan.
GIVEN ALL this knowledge about Russia’s role, much remains unclear. Moscow supposedly provided Syria with the S-300 system in 2018, but it hasn’t been used by the regime. In May 2020, reports indicated that Russian radar used by the Syrian regime was inadequate to prevent airstrikes. Israel has said it has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria in recent years.
Russia sent its S-400 to Latakia in 2015 after a Russian plane was shot down by Turkey. Moscow was also likely behind Syrian strikes that killed Turkish soldiers in February 2018. What was Russia doing in Idlib in that scenario? It likely was showing Turkey it could suffer casualties or seeing how the Syrian regime would square off against Turkey.
Is Russia opposed to Iran’s increasing entrenchment? Moscow doesn’t want Syria to become an area of Iran-Israel warfare, reports last month indicated. That could erode and destabilize the Syrian regime, which Russia supports.
After all, Iran is sponging up Syria, building bases and moving in militias, most of whom have no interest in Russia. Iran is destabilizing Syria, and the Syrian regime had once been a powerful Stalinist-style state.
Syria is now divided, occupied by Turkey, with the US backing the SDF in the east, Iranian entrenchment in the south and Israeli airstrikes. Does Russia want a frozen conflict or a secure Syrian regime?
Russia both supports Iran in Syria and “explicitly or tacitly allows Israeli military actions against Iranian targets,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said in a July 2019 report.
The Trump administration, with secretary of state Mike Pompeo, national security advisor John Bolton and Jeffrey, enabled Israel to act in Syria with cooperation from the US. The level of that cooperation is not known.
Russia has threaded the needle in Syria. It has enabled friction between the Syrian regime and Turkey, and between Israel and Iran, gambling on the idea that all those involved in Syria now come to Moscow to figure out what to do next. The recent deal to release an Israel woman who entered Syria illustrates that.
A careful reading of Russian involvement shows how Moscow acts as the “maestro” of the Syrian conflict, keying in parts of the band when necessary.
Whether Iran, Israel, Turkey, the US, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, Kataib Hezbollah, Hezbollah and everyone else in Syria will continue to play their role in concert is unclear.