New Calls for Russian Mediation Emerge After Israeli Strikes on Iran’s Forces in Syria

The incident also saw one Israeli jet shot down by Syrian air defenses, but according to the Los Angeles Times the pilots survived after ejecting over Israeli territory. The same report also noted that Iranian officials denied the reports of the initial drone incursion, calling it “ridiculous”. But Tehran’s statement on the matter also professed that the Islamic Republic’s involvement in the Syrian civil war is limited to the provision of “military advice” – an assertion that has been repeatedly contradicted by reports from independent media and from regional intelligence networks opposed to Iran’s clerical regime.

Those reports highlight the presence in Syria of thousands of militant proxies recruited by the Islamic Republic, as well as the direct contributions that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has made to the fighting. Iran has also been credited with providing advanced weapons to its proxies throughout the Middle East, and this trend is a particular cause for concern among the Israeli leadership, which views Iran’s potentially permanent foothold in neighboring Syria as an existential threat.

The Jewish News Syndicate provided its own account of the drone incursion and its consequences on Sunday, the day after the incident. “Iran wanted to get its drone deep into Israeli airspace to prove that it can extract a price for [Israeli Air Force] operations,” it said, adding that that plan was frustrated when the drone was shot down 90 seconds after breaching Israeli air space. JNS also speculates that the operators of the drone were likely killed in a subsequent attack on an Iranian military caravan in Syria.

The LA Times described the direct clash between Israeli and Iranian forces as an “apparent first,” but JNS notes that Israel has already used various cross-border strikes on Syrian targets in order to enforce its “red lines” concerning the Syrian Civil War. “These red lines ban the entrance of Iranian military forces and weapons into Syria [and] the production and transfer of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the article declared.

Iran’s attempted retaliation and Israel’s retaliation in kind have naturally begun to fuel anxieties about the possibility of broader involvement in Syria’s now seven-year-old war. This has in turn given rise to public commentary from several of the current players and from prominent foreign observers regarding who would bear responsibility for escalation, as well as who is in the best position to prevent it.

American officials predictably defended the actions of their close ally Israel, although the US stopped short of explicitly endorsing the military strikes or indicating that it would support more of the same. UPI quoted Secretary of Defense James Mattis as saying, “Israel has an absolute right to defend itself, and I think that’s what happened yesterday.” Mattis went on to criticize the Assad government for providing Iran with a conduit for its provision of advanced weapons to longstanding enemies of Israel, including the Iran-backed Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah, which has apparently been pursuing a permanent foothold in Syria alongside other Iranian proxies.

The LA Times indicated that the US State Department had expressed similar sentiments, with spokesperson Heather Nauert saying, “Iran’s calculated escalation of threat and its ambition to project its power and dominance places all the people of the‎ region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk.” The statement went on to reiterate familiar White House condemnations about “Iran’s malign activities,” but the vague language of that statement reportedly gave rise to criticisms about the absence of US leadership and the danger of major diplomatic power over the situation being assumed only by Russia.

However, several other public statements and media analyses have suggested that it might be beneficial to accept such Russian influence, despite the fact that Moscow and Tehran have maintained a close alliance in their defense of the Assad government. The Atlantic published an article on Tuesday that took this position and noted that Russia’s alliance with Iran is somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that the erstwhile superpower “enjoys good relations with all the main actors” in the Syrian Civil War and the diplomatic negotiations over its possible conclusion.

That article suggests that Iran’s simultaneous friendships with Iran and Israel put the Kremlin in a unique position to broker “a new understanding about the rules governing conflict,” in order to prevent the outbreak of another war between Israel and Hezbollah, which could spiral into a much larger conflict between Israel and Hezbollah’s handers in Iran.

This perspective is evidently shared by Britain’s Foreign Office. On Monday, Reuters quoted UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as urging Russia to “use its influence to press the regime and its backers to avoid provocative actions and to support de-escalation in pursuit of a broader political settlement.”

However, JNS raised questions about the potential for success in this course of action, while still acknowledging the unique position enjoyed by Russia. The report highlighted an apparent fact that has been raised by countless analysts since Russia first became directly involved in the Syrian Civil War, namely that the Russian and Iranian governments have generally divergent interests in that region despite their mutual support of the Assad regime. As an aspect of this divergence, JNS notes, Russia appears committed to negotiating a political solution to the conflict while Iran evidently remains committed to spreading its hegemony throughout the Middle East.

Many commentators have suggested that this divergence could be exploited to compel Moscow to rein in its supposed Iranian allies. Such expectations have been frustrated at various turns, but the newfound threat of open conflict between two Russian allies may prove to be a significant, additional motivating factor. Accordingly, Johnson’s commentary on the Israeli strikes and the potential Russian response appeared to emphasize Iran’s unique culpability for the ongoing escalation. “We are concerned at the Iranian actions, which detract from efforts to get a genuine peace process under way,” he said.

It is also interesting to note that the drone incursion and Israeli response were preceded, just one day earlier, by the International Crisis Group’s publication of an article arguing for Russian brokerage of a modus vivendi in Syria between Iran and Israel. The article suggested that Moscow was in a position to constrain both sides and that it could do so by taking the lead in de-escalation while “distancing Iran-backed forces from Syria’s armistice line with Israel.”

The first step toward this outcome, according to the article, would be for Russia to refuse air support for any Syrian government campaign that includes Hezbollah or other Shiite militias. However, Russia has failed to take meaningful measures toward constraining its allies in the recent past, and it still remains unclear whether Moscow will be willing to reverse course from the strengthening of ties with Tehran.

In another article immediately preceding Saturday’s drone incursion, The Diplomat raised questions about the strength of the Iran-Russia alliance but did not reach any definitive conclusion about whether that alliance could be expected to persist over the long term. In the first place, the article noted that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had met with his Russian counterpart one month earlier and had praised the two countries’ shared objectives and ongoing collaboration. But on the other hand, it reported that Russia had already shown signs of shifting toward Iran’s adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in setting policies relevant to the civil war in Yemen, where Iran backs the Houthi rebels.

The Diplomat also underscored the observations made by JNS and other outlets regarding Iran’s relative disinterest in regional stability, in contrast to Russian objectives. On the basis of such factors, the article suggests that Iran’s adversaries reach out to Russia in order to continue encouraging the long-anticipated divergence of the two allies’ activities.

But even if this outreach becomes apparent, Russia will certainly face counter-pressures from Iran. This fact was emphasized in an editorial published by Eurasia Review, which described some of the means by which Iranian foreign policy officials are encouraging Moscow to strengthen the existing alliance. The article notes that this is a highly motivated endeavor because Iran needs Russian support not only to guarantee the survival of the Assad regime but also to circumvent economic sanctions and to evade accountability, particularly in the United Nations Security Council, where Russia enjoys permanent member status.

The article even observes that Tehran is apparently striving to pit the US and Russia against each other in the context of the Syrian war. This goes to show that whatever other factors emerge in near future, Russian decisions to side with one ally over another may ultimately determine where the dividing lines of that conflict are. And this may in turn help to determine how far the conflict extends and how long it lasts.