Published in The Hill
How did we reach a point where America’s most important ally in the Middle East is forced to deal with Russia if it wants to act against Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon and Syria? Today, all of the Middle East’s major players, from Iran to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Israel, know that Russia is the “go-to mediator” that has relations across the region’s ideological spectrum and can successfully navigate between opposing sides.
As Jonathan Spyer wrote in the Jerusalem Post, Russia “maintains open channels …with the main players …which the United States has chosen through weariness or other priorities to keep absent. … [Russia is] comfortable in the environment of frozen conflicts and divided countries. … Under Biden [the U.S.] shows no signs of wanting to come roaring back to major commitments in the region.”
America has outsourced its foreign policy in the Middle East to Russia, which has forced Israel to change its approach to its most imminent threat from its northern Iranian front in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. With American financial help for its anti-missile systems and Israel’s essential intelligence-gathering to advance American national security interests, the U.S. and Israel are indispensable allies. Beyond that, there is little America can do, or is willing to do, since it has decided not to be an active player in the Levant.
The relationship between Israel and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a complex cat-and-mouse game, in which Russia winks and allows Israel to strike its erstwhile allies — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled militias. Yet, Russian interests demand that it also keeps those entities in control of Syria and Lebanon to solidify the crucial gains it attained by supporting the Syrian civil war’s winning side. Russia’s Syria victory allowed it to expand and upgrade its Tartus seaport on the Mediterranean Sea, a warm water port that expands its regional influence toward Europe. Add to that its upgraded Khmeimim Air Base near the Syrian city of Latakia, and Russia is as much a victor as Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the former head of research for the Israel Defense Force Military Intelligence Division, retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, “Everyone understands that Israel isn’t acting against the Syrian regime [as long as it is not] doing anything that jeopardizes Russian interests. Russia appears to be giving Israel a free hand against game-changing technology transfers from Iran, as long as it plays by its rules.”
How did Russia become the most influential force in the region?
The die was cast nearly 10 years ago when former President Obama allowed his chemical weapons “red line” to be crossed, choosing not to militarily respond to Assad’s use of sarin gas that killed 1,400 civilians. Instead, Obama chose to abandon Syria and turn over the removal of chemical weapons to Putin, who was more than willing to accept the invitation as a path to becoming the dominant power in the Levant. The Obama administration apparently was convinced that turning Syria over to the Russians would be analogous to America’s experience with Vietnam. Russia thanked Obama and immediately proceeded to change the Syrian war in favor of Iran and Syria.
According to The Atlantic, “Obama’s failure to follow through on (his) threat … has continued to haunt America’s involvement in the Syrian tragedy. The subsequent U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal did not prevent the horror of April 4  when … Assad’s forces mounted a new sarin attack on civilians. … The agreement and its implementation mechanism were deeply flawed.”
Israel’s long-term plan of playing Iranian Whac-a-Mole — hitting game-changing military targets as they emerge throughout Syria, Iraq and Lebanon — needs Putin’s consent. Israel’s continuing air campaign must be coordinated with the Russian military to avoid its accidentally targeting Israeli aircraft. Neither Israel nor Russia would like Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft system to shoot down an Israeli jet aircraft, or worse, to force Israel to target a Russian missile system in response. That would be a diplomatic disaster. Syrian anti-aircraft destroyed a Russian plane during an alleged Israeli missile strike in 2018.
The unspoken “quid pro quo” between Israel and Russia is that Israel must settle for half a loaf. It can attack Iranian proxies and their advanced missile facilities, but it must accept a permanent Iranian presence and influence in Syria, just as it has in Lebanon with Hezbollah. In 2017, Russian promises to keep Iran and its proxies 53 miles away from the Israeli Golan evaporated almost from the moment they were uttered.
Russian pronouncements regarding Israeli actions in Syria and Lebanon are decidedly hostile. According to Newsweek, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov said, “Israel is attacking Hezbollah; Hezbollah is not attacking Israel. … The problem is Israel, not the Iranians. … There is no way we are approving any Israeli strikes on Syria.” But so far, it’s more Russian bluster than any tangible action inhibiting Israeli actions in Lebanon and Syria.
Israel knows the address is Moscow if it wants to advance its interests and attempt to minimize Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Watching Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Hezbollah’s Lebanese parliament leader Mohammad Raad be given equal access and respect in Moscow this month must have turned a few Israeli stomachs. Then again, Russia is no angel — it delights in any opportunity to diminish the United States.
The status quo in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq won’t last forever. Iran could turn the screws on Israel at any time if it senses weakness or military advantage. With American willingness to return to the Iranian nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Israel could decide at some point to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, prompting a massive Iranian directed attack emanating from Syria or Lebanon. The likelihood that the situation on Israel’s northern border would spiral out of control over the next decade is high. However, Israel and Russia share an interest in not letting things escalate. Russia wants to solidify its gains, and Israel would like to avoid the costs of a major war with Iran.
If Israel’s northern Iranian border gets hot, some would argue that it is in American interests to actively engage in diplomacy to quiet the situation. The last time the U.S. worked with Russia on the northern border, the U.S. trusted Putin to keep Iran from permanently entrenching itself on Syria’s border with Israel. As with chemical weapons, Russia held the cards and did as it pleased, making America look impotent to its allies and enemies alike. With both Democrats and Republicans eager to get the U.S. out of the Middle East, Israel is left to deal with Russia for the foreseeable future.