An interesting thing happened last week. A Russian reconnaissance plane was shot down by the Syrian army, so naturally Russia blamed Israel, claiming that Israel used the plane to shield its own fighter aircraft, en route to strike Iranian positions in Syria. Interesting though that charge may be, it’s far less fascinating than Moscow’s other quibble – that the Israelis had failed to give the Russians sufficient warning that they were entering Russia-controlled airspace in Syria. This runs counter to an arrangement whereby Israel, Russia and the U.S. pledged to inform each other about aircraft movement, so congested have the skies there become. In other words, the Russians didn’t object to the fact that Israel entered Syrian airspace – they objected to the fact they weren’t given much of a heads up.
The Russians knew what Israel was up to. The air campaign against Iran in Syria has been going on for some time. And since Iran tends to be unprepared for these attacks, it’s safe to assume the Russians aren’t tipping off the Iranians. The only conclusion that I can come to, being the simple-minded man I am, is that Russia doesn’t seem to mind it when Israel bombs Iran. In the ensuing dispute over who was responsible for shooting down the Russian aircraft, accusations abounded, but the fact that the Israelis bombed the Iranians never emerged as a significant issue.
The tectonic plates of the Middle East have been in motion recently, and this episode is part of that realignment. Russia made a deal with Turkey that seems to have taken a Russia-led assault on Idlib off the table, leaving Bashar Assad, who wanted to take Idlib to secure Syria’s northwestern frontier, out in the cold. Assad may not like it, but he isn’t upset enough to shoot down the plane of one of his biggest benefactors. Even so, Russia’s relations with Syria are a little shaky, as are its relations with Iran, the would-be target of Israeli attacks.
The realignment may not tell us much we didn’t already know in that regard, but it reveals a lot about how far Russia and Israel are willing to cooperate. But it also indicates that Russia very much wants to find some basis for a long-term relationship with Turkey, whose stewardship of the Bosporus is one of Russia’s oldest geopolitical imperatives. The Bosporus makes any Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean shaky. It can pose a challenge to Russia in the Caucasus, an important Russian buffer zone. And when Turkey is allied with the United States, as it more or less is now, Washington has the ability to project air power throughout the region, particularly in the Black Sea.
And so, for Russia, an alliance with Turkey would be a dream come true. Not so for Turkey, which is historically suspicious of Russia, having fought and conspired against it for years. The government in Ankara knows that an alliance with Russia, without a backup plan, would be unwise. We are far from an alliance, but with the Idlib agreement, at least we know outright conflict has been avoided.
Russia is thus cooperating with Israel and courting Turkey. It has proved what it wanted to prove in Syria, that it is still a global power, unafraid of the U.S. and the West. Assad survived. Russia can claim success. Iran was useful in this regard, but when Syria is secure, Iran’s value falls. The Turks have no love for the Iranians, whose expansion in the region was never a matter of great enthusiasm for Turkey or Russia. It was situational, and the situation is changing.
The catalyst for change was Iranian expansion. The government in Tehran took advantage of an opportunity created by the defeat of the Islamic State to assert itself in Iraq, a country that is essential to the security of Iran’s western border. It established a powerful presence in Lebanon long ago and is supporting rebels in Yemen. But it is spreading itself too thin. Iran can project enough power to be politically relevant in all these countries but not enough to hold its position against a determined foreign power.
Enter Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The Saudis share with Israel a sense that Iran is their primary enemy. Neither Israel nor the Saudis want to see Iranian influence spread any further than it already has. It’s little wonder, then, that Saudi and Emirati media have reported that Israel sold Saudi Arabia its Iron Dome missile defense system. (The Saudis and Israelis tend to loathe each other publicly but cooperate with each other secretly.) If true, the sale means their relationship is now out in the open, creating an informal alliance from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Add to this Egypt, with which Israel has engaged on security issues for some time, and that alliance stretches to the Red Sea.
It’s a peculiar bloc, constituted as it is by Sunni Arabs and Israelis, but already it is taking action. Israel is attacking Iran in Syria, and it is preparing for a fight with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the not-too-distant future. The Turks are in an uneasy alliance with the Sunnis, but they are allied nonetheless. The Russians are essentially giving the go-ahead to airstrikes. The Iranians are being boxed in.
Missing from this narrative, of course, is the United States. It has adopted a strategy I assumed it would, allowing the local balance of power to deal with matters, and being the last recourse, not the first. The U.S. has not abdicated responsibility entirely. It continues to wage economic war against Iran, and it maintains special operations forces in the region to train and support some of these newfound relationships.
The story of a downed Russian plane, then, is really a story about Iran. It made its move, and now its enemies are fighting back. The real battle, whether overt or covert, has not yet begun.