Israeli Minister of Immigration and Absorption Yoav Galant announced at the end of January that his government had achieved diplomatic success. He said that Jerusalem has a plan to squeeze the Iranian military out of Syria, and that Israel can count on Russia’s support in this.
The Israeli minister observed that the close collaboration between Moscow and Tehran is coming to an end.
While Russia had to fight against the Syrian anti-government formations, Moscow treated Iran and its allies from Hezbollah as its partners, Galant noted. However, the situation has now changed, and Moscow is turning towards Jerusalem. “Both Israel and Russia are interested in driving Iran out of Syria,” the minister commented.
Initially Russia refrained from making public comments about this. Moscow even criticized Israel for its air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria on 20 and 21 January.
“The practice of arbitrarily forcefully striking a sovereign state’s territory – in this case Syria – must be eliminated,” said Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova. “We must not let Syria, which has suffered from armed conflict in recent years, turn into an arena for settling geopolitical scores,” she added.
However, Moscow later made it clear that Israel is its ally. “By no means do we disregard the importance of the measures needed to ensure Israel’s lasting security,” remarked Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. “The Israelis know this, the US knows this, everyone else knows this, including the Iranians, Turks and Syrian government. This is one of Russia’s priorities,” the deputy minister observed.
Russia’s drawing near to Israel was preceded by intense diplomatic contacts in 2018. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow. He last visited the Russian capital in July 2018.
Both countries are interested in driving Iran out of Syria. Israel considers the presence of the Shiite state so close to its borders a serious security threat. For Russia, Iran causes instability, undermining Moscow’s efforts to establish a truce in Syria after eight years of war.
The political alienation between Moscow and Tehran has apparently already led to an insignificant encounter between these two allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The clash took place in the strategically significant Al-Ghab valley in the north-west of the Hama province, with both sides using armored vehicles, machine guns and mortars. Spiegel Online estimates that dozens and possibly as many as 200 people were killed in the skirmish.
Rami Abdulrahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, believes that it is still too early to talk of an armed conflict between the parties. He thinks that, although Russia really is trying to reduce Iran’s influence in the region, this has not yet resulted in actual fighting.
However, Russian soldiers who are acting as military police in Syria have reportedly arrested several Iranian mercenaries who had been terrorizing civilians, Abdulrahman notes. The head of the human rights observatory estimates that there are around 3000 Syrian soldiers in the country who have been recruited by Iran. “They are neither Shiites nor Sunnis,” Abdulrahman told Deutsche Welle in an interview, “They are people who fight for Iran only for the money.”