Can Moscow Mediate Between Israel and Iran in Syria?
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Mark Katz

Mark Katz — professor of government and politics in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, is a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

As tensions between Iran and Israel rise to new heights, Russia finds itself in a tricky position—trying to balance between two states that are friendly with Moscow but mortal enemies to each other. On one hand, this might give Russia a chance to act as mediator between Iran and Israel. On the other, the prospects seem dim: For now, the two adversaries seem unfazed by the prospect of direct conflict, while Moscow has little to offer in the way of prolonged aid that could incentivize lasting peace. All this leaves the impression that Iran and Israel may be doomed to fight it out until one of them wins or both accept conflict resolution by a third party.

The most recent round of frictions between Israel and Iran, along with its ally Hezbollah, can be viewed as one of four overlapping wars going on in Syria, with the other three being: 1) the war between Assad and his internal Arab opponents; 2) the war between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey; and 3) the war against Islamic State, or ISIS. The Assad regime has largely won its war, thanks to help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The war against ISIS has also largely been won (at least for now), thanks to the U.S., its Syrian Kurdish allies and others. The war between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds continues, though it has not escalated to the extent that was feared could happen earlier this year. The war between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah, though, threatens to heat up even further.

Part of the reason hostility between Israel and Iran has ratcheted up is because the wars against Assad’s Arab opponents and ISIS have wound down. Israel has long feared that if Iran and its allies prevailed in Syria, Tehran would next turn its attention to attacking Israel through Hezbollah or even directly. So long as Iran and its allies were preoccupied with defending Assad, Israel limited itself to occasionally targeting Hezbollah, which Israel has fought in the past. The Sunni jihadist group ISIS, while sharing Iran’s anti-Western stance, is also anti-Shi’a, hence no friend to Tehran. With these “distractions” now out of the way, Israel and Iran have turned their attention toward each other—including direct clashes between their forces—and the possibility of escalation is real.

This puts Russia in a difficult situation since Moscow has good relations with both Iran and Israel that it wishes to preserve. As is well known, Russia has been actively collaborating with Iran and its allies in defending the Assad regime. Since the beginning of its intervention in Syria in September 2015, Russia has focused on the air war, which Iran and Hezbollah do not have the capacity to wage, while the latter have focused on the ground war, which Moscow does not want to fight. Russia and Iran, then, have been very much dependent on each other in Syria.

At the same time, Russia has developed strong relations with Israel under Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two countries cooperate in the security, economic and cultural spheres. Putin has taken a strong interest in the welfare of the large Russian-speaking community in Israel, has visited Israel twice and has often received Israeli leaders—including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on numerous occasions. The Russian-Israeli de-confliction agreement over Syria has worked very well, with each side not interfering in the other’s activities. This has included Russia turning a blind eye to Israeli attacks on Hezbollah forces in Syria.

An escalation of Israeli-Iranian conflict threatens to complicate Moscow’s relations with both its partners, and also raises the unwelcome (for Russia) prospect of greater involvement in Syria by the Trump administration, which is strongly pro-Israel and vehemently anti-Iran. Such involvement, if it weakens Iran and is allies, would threaten renewed vulnerability for the Assad regime, thus necessitating a greater Russian exertion to keep it propped up. Moscow does not want this possibility to even be raised.

One way that Russia might avoid this is if it could serve as a mediator between Iran and Israel. Indeed, Russia seems far better placed to do this than America as Iranian-American relations have turned increasingly hostile since the outset of the Trump administration and especially since its withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear accord, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Russia, by contrast, can talk with both Israel and Iran. Indeed, Russia seems to be in a similar position to America in the 1970s when it was able to broker the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt because Washington had good relations with both sides, while Moscow did not.

There are, however, two important differences between today’s situation and the one 40 years ago. First, by the time of the Camp David negotiations, both Egypt and Israel had already fought three wars and did not want to fight another. Both were ready for a peace agreement but could not reach one on their own. Second, the U.S. was willing and able to provide military and economic assistance to both sides in order to achieve and maintain the truce. By contrast, while there has been tension between Israel and Iran for many years and actual conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel and Iran have yet to fight an actual war. Further, there appear to be key players on both sides who are eager for such a conflict because they think their side can prevail. Russia, meanwhile, seems neither willing nor able to provide the indefinite assistance to Israel and Iran that America has been providing for decades to Israel and Egypt as an inducement to peace.

The problem that Moscow faces is that it is impossible to mediate a conflict between opposing parties who do not want to resolve it peacefully, but to fight it out instead. Nor does Moscow appear to have the ability to coerce them into mediation. Moscow’s withdrawal of its threat to supply Syria with S-300 air defense missiles after the recent Putin-Netanyahu meeting raises the possibility that Putin is not going to pressure Israel to not fight Iran. He also seems unwilling to apply serious pressure on Iran to not fight with Israel if that risks undermining Moscow and Tehran’s joint effort to support Assad. Meanwhile, if conflict between Iran and Israel were to grow, increased Trump administration support for Israel would surely follow. If Israeli-Iranian conflict escalates, Putin will have to quickly decide what his priorities are.

Perhaps if the U.S. and Russia worked together, they might be able to persuade both Israel and Iran to exercise restraint. But with Trump and Netanyahu practically egging each other on over who can be more hostile toward Iran, Washington does not currently seem amenable toward such an approach. Indeed, Israel and Iran might not be amenable to conflict resolution efforts by any outside party until, like Egypt and Israel previously, they have fought each other long enough to learn that neither can prevail and the costs of conflict are too high for both.

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