Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel and Russia had agreed to cooperate on withdrawing foreign forces from Syria. If confirmed, it would mean that Russia has agreed to force the Iranians out of Syria, a significant development for both Israel and the Syrian war itself. It’s even more critical given that another round of talks between Turkey, Iran and Russia to find a settlement to the war is looming.
Russia has yet to confirm or deny Netanyahu’s comments, but it seems unlikely the Israelis would put Russia on the spot this way if they weren’t true. Israel wants Iran out of Syria, but it also wants accommodation with Russia. And the two countries have already shown some degree of cooperation in their Syrian operations. Israel has likely provided Russia with advance notice of its airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, and so far, Russia has not blocked or, as far as we can tell, notified the Iranians about the strikes. In addition, Turkey, one of three countries negotiating an end to the conflict, appears relatively calm on the subject. Around the time Netanyahu made the announcement, Turkey’s pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper published an article dispassionately analyzing Russia’s relationship with both Israel and Iran in Syria. It seems clear Russia has indeed agreed to push foreign forces out of the country.
Before we can understand why Russia would do this, however, we need to understand why Russia went into Syria in the first place. The official explanation was that it wanted to protect Bashar Assad, a longtime Russian ally. But this explanation is hard to buy as Assad’s government is not strategically important to Moscow. Some have speculated that Russia was really trying to secure naval bases in Syria. The problem with that explanation is that supplies for a significant Russian naval squadron in the Mediterranean would have to flow through the Bosporus, which is controlled by Turkey. Turkey and Russia have an extraordinarily complex relationship, and the Russians simply could not rely on Turkish cooperation to supply the squadron in the event of war. Russian bases at Syrian ports would also be highly vulnerable to U.S. attack. So that reasoning never made much sense. Another possible explanation was that Russia wanted to gain control of energy pipelines, but given the price of energy and the cost of Russia’s military intervention, that explanation makes little economic sense.
It seems more likely that Russia intervened to demonstrate that it could undertake significant operations in the Middle East. It wanted to deliver this message to the Americans but more importantly to the Russian people. It was a low-risk operation that involved limited forces and an attainable goal. The Russians did save Assad, and that in itself had some strategic value.
Turkey, meanwhile, didn’t want Assad to survive the war, but in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, Ankara wasn’t eager to involve itself in a foreign conflict. It needed to get its own house in order first. So although there was always some tension and distrust between them – in part because of Russia’s coveting of the Bosporus and in part because of Turkey’s desire to project influence in the Caucasus, a region located on Russia’s doorstep – Russia and Turkey found ways to manage their relationship. They were content to keep out of each other’s way.
Russia, however, was willing to provide only air support and a limited number of special forces to help Assad. It didn’t want to inject massive ground forces to protect the Syrian government, especially not against potential U.S. incursions or Turkish involvement, should Ankara change its mind. Inevitably, the amount of resources Moscow devoted to Syria climbed, but it was intent on avoiding the U.S. experience in the Middle East.
In particular, Russia had no desire and limited capability to extend its operations to southern Syria and areas along the Iraqi border – the territory in which the Islamic State was operating. It needed someone else to handle IS. Enter Iran. It was active in fighting IS in Iraq and was also a close ally of Assad. Assad was a member of the Alawites, a Shiite sect of Islam, and Shiite Iran wanted to ensure its ally remained in power. But the Iranians also had strategic reasons for protecting Assad.
Iran, with its anti-IS operations in Iraq, had managed to project power beyond the Zagros Mountains on its western border. It already dominated Lebanon, whose major faction, Hezbollah, was an Iranian proxy. The Iranians were thus one country away from having an empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean – which would make them the dominant country in the region, more powerful than the fragmented Sunni nations.
The one country missing in the Iranian project was Syria. While Russia wanted to limit its exposure there and supported Assad for reasons having little to do with Syria itself, Iran had an overriding interest in destroying IS and saving Assad. This formed the basis for a logical alliance.
But the Russians were wary of cooperating with Iran because, like Turkey, Iran has interests in the Caucasus. The Caucasus guard southern Russia and are, after the buffer states in Eastern Europe, the most important region for Russian national security. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia were part of the Soviet Union, but after its collapse, they became independent states. The North Caucasus remained part of Russia, but this included places like Chechnya and Dagestan that were occasionally difficult to manage and always capable of posing a challenge.
Azerbaijan, in particular, is a place that could present problems for Russia in the future. The Iranians have tried to project power in Azerbaijan through schools, propaganda and other sources of influence. A significant number of ethnic Azeris live in Iran today, mainly in the north, an area that was also occupied by the Soviets during World War II. Azerbaijan therefore is a complex place where Russia and Iran compete for power. If Russia dominated all of Azerbaijan, it would be an enormous threat to Iran. If Iran took control of Azerbaijan, it would be a dagger pointing at the North Caucasus.
Russia therefore doesn’t want Iran to build an empire stretching to the Mediterranean. In fact, it’s privately happy to see U.S. sanctions cripple Iran, though it won’t admit as much publicly. Russia needed Iran in Syria for a time, but as the saying goes, nations have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests. So, having saved Assad, it’s now time for the Russians to move the Iranians out of Syria and deny them their empire.
Israel would be content if Russia were to manage to push Iran out of Syria. The Turks don’t want to see Assad stay in power in the long term but will tolerate him in the short term. The United States has mostly let the conflict play out, showing for one of the first times since 9/11 that it can restrain itself in a major Middle Eastern issue. And Russia got the boost in prestige it was seeking, though it has myriad other problems to contend with at home. Assad, meanwhile, has survived the war thanks to the help of his closest allies. All things considered, he was the biggest winner of all.