Russian and Iranian support for Syrian government forces has been vital to their success in the country's civil war, giving both countries substantial influence in Damascus. The continuing presence of Iranian forces inside its neighbor, however, has put Israel on edge, prompting it to ask Russia to intervene. Although Russia's pull with the Syrian government is considerable, it is not enough to persuade Damascus to evict a valuable ally.
The Latest Development
Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian special envoy to Syria, indicated Aug. 1 that the Iranian forces who had helped the Syrian government overcome pockets of rebel and Islamic State resistance near the Israeli border would be moving their heavy weapons at least 85 kilometers (52.8 miles) from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. But the announcement did little to mollify Israel, which has called the buffer zone insufficient and continues to push Russia to pressure Iran into leaving Syria altogether.
Why It Matters
The Russians have long been building connections to both Israel and Iran, seeking to capitalize on their position as a diplomatic great power by virtue of their intervention in Syria. But there are limits to how much Russia can do. While the Iranian pullback will cut down the risk of short-range attacks on Israel, that is not the only challenge that the Israelis see coming from Iran. Its supply corridor to Hezbollah in Lebanon also presents a powerful threat. And despite the withdrawal, Iranian missile forces in Syria could strike Israel even beyond the 85-kilometer buffer zone, or could quickly be sent back inside it, joining the Iranian troops that remained behind as advisers. So for Israel, any significant Iranian presence in Syria is a threat, not merely one near its Golan border.
That perception has propelled Israeli strikes as far afield as the Iraqi-Syrian border, central Homs and northern Aleppo. Israel continues to take advantage of a window of opportunity to disrupt and mitigate Iranian entrenchment in Syria, even as it welcomes whatever diplomatic gains Russia can offer.
The Iranians, too, have confounded the Russians' attempts to flex their diplomatic muscle. Iran is able to maintain its position in Syria independent of Moscow; it is a major economic and security partner for Damascus and will pursue its own agenda for a postwar settlement. Moreover, it's not in Russia's interests to wholly evict Iran from Syria. Iranian troops and associated militias help maintain order on the ground, and they do much of the fighting that Russia, which is looking for a graceful way to exit the Syrian conflict, wishes to avoid. At the same time, Russia does not want to risk being drawn into a clash with Israel, so it has not extended protection to Iranian forces from Israeli airstrikes.
Russia will struggle to create a settlement that will prevent further clashes between Iran and Israel inside Syria.
What's at Stake?
Israel and Iran's first direct exchange came in early May when Iran fired short-range rockets into the Golan Heights as retaliation for an Israeli airstrike. That led Israel to come back with significant airstrikes targeting both Iranian and Syrian targets. While those strikes damaged Iranian forces, they did not prompt Tehran to leave the country, or to retaliate beyond Syria. Before that, an Iranian drone broke into Israeli airspace in February, prompting a counterattack on the Iranian drone base in Syria, which resulted in the shootdown of an Israeli F-16 by Syrian forces.
Israeli officials have repeatedly stressed their intolerance of Iranian forces in Syria, and Israel has carried out a campaign of airstrikes to disrupt Iran's buildup and its supply lines to the anti-Israeli militia Hezbollah inside the country. A series of high-level talks between Israeli and Russian leaders has not led to a resolution, meaning that continued Israeli action is likely.