Russian Presence in the Middle East: Chances and Risks for Israel

Russian presence in the region poses new challenges for Israel, creating a new situation right on its borders, forcing it to reevaluate the rules of the game in the increasingly unstable regional realities. Israel has to take into account that Russia will continue to play a significant role in the region in the visible future, while there is unclear if Russia is Israel’s potential partner or competitor in future regional arrangements. 

Processes that characterize the Middle East situation in recent years have created an entirely new regional reality. The results of the Arab Spring and the dissolution of most secular countries in the Arab world have created a vacuum, which has become a fighting ground for other actors. Islamist forces seeking to augment their power are striving to exploit state governments weakened by the upheavals afflicting the region on the one hand, and regional powers are aiming to influence the trends, seeking regional hegemony, on the other.

This confrontation is now concentrated in former Syria and Iraq, on two separate fronts: the Syrian civil war and the international coalition fighting against the IS, as well as in Yemen, Libya, Sinai and others. The Middle Eastern confrontation has also encouraged a growing intervention by global powers, which are also competing among themselves, as they aim to enhance their relative power in this framework and dictate the appropriate future arrangement of the regional order.

Russia is one of the actors playing a key role in this struggle for power. Russian involvement in the Middle East, seen as part of its global confrontation with the West, reflects Russia's interest to promote its international standing. This move is carried out in response to the current challenges, in order to help Russia break out the pressures on it, to become an influential regional power and to cope with the Islamic threat. However, it has created a new international reality changing the regional strategic paradigm as a whole.

This involvement, which could only take place in the circumstances of the United States’ regional fatigue, has expanded global conflict and increased tensions with the West, which views the aspirations of Russia as intended against its interests. The Western reaction was isolation and international pressure on Russia, combined with economic sanctions, which are affecting the Russian economy and political stability.

Following involvement in the Syrian crisis, Russia found itself facing two fronts – Ukraine and Syria, which has a cost. While Russia is now running the show in Syria, it has not fully succeeded in promoting the meaningful global goals, initiated by the involvement process in Syria. So far, the US and Europe have disapproved of what Russia has tried to promote in the region and refrained from joint action with it, while increasing the pressure on it by continuing the sanctions. However, on the regional level, Russia has promoted itself to the status of a player with regional influence, and has successfully acted to upgrade relations with most of the regional countries through constant maneuvering .

Russian involvement in Syria operates as a coalition that includes the Russian forces, which are deployed in Syria, the Syrian army, still loyal to Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and other Shiite militias. Turkey, after resolving its crisis with Russia, has joined this coalition and is now taking part in the military action in Syria, mainly to promote its own interests. There are some gaps in this coalition surrounding the question of the future Syrian and regional regime, which are making Russia’s relations with other actors more complicated.

However, it appears that the Russian-led coalition managed to transfer the military achievements on the ground into a political process and succeeded in bringing the Syrian warring sides to the negotiation table. The next stage of this crisis is supposed to be the arrangement for the future order in Syria after the IS defeat. Judging by the recent developments, Russia concluded that the federalization of Syria would be the most achievable solution. It seems that the previous scenario of a united Syria under the Alawite regime is no longer relevant.

Trump’s victory was received with optimism in Russia, in particular, because of his statements about willingness to cooperate with Russia. Western pressure was expected to be worsened by continued rule by the Democratic Party in the US. Obviously, the United States’ global policy, while reshaping relations with Russia, is expected to be a major issue on the agenda of the new administration. In the US and in the international system as a whole, there is a great uncertainty and considerable confusion about US’ future steps toward Russia. This evoked concern among those who prefer continuing to apply pressure on Russia among the outgoing administration and its supporters, members of Congress and of course in Europe, which will make it difficult for Trump to change the policy towards Russia.

It seems, however, that Trump’s interest will be to reduce the intensity of the conflict with Russia. He appears to be ready to promote steps toward compromise without strategic concessions. It appears that Russia and the new US administration will make efforts for reconciliation, apparently with some reciprocal concessions. However, in this fuzzy picture, it is yet too early to speak about the future policies towards Russia. It has to wait and see the future policies and actions of the new administration. There is no doubt that any policy of the new administration will affect the Middle East and all processes underway there, including the Russian involvement in Syria.

Israel, which in this reality is one of the regional powers, is on the one hand not longer subject to further threats from the weakened former enemy countries, but on the other hand finds itself in confrontation with a Shiite power which is fighting for regional, and possibly, multi-regional hegemony.

Russian presence in the region poses new challenges for Israel, creating a new situation right on its borders, forcing it to reevaluate the rules of the game in the increasingly unstable regional realities, which confronted Israel with new constraints. Israel faces the challenge posed by Russia’s coalition operating in Syria, which consists of Israel’s principal enemies: Iran, the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and their supporters. Israel regards the consolidation of Iran in Syrian territory and the military buildup of Hezbollah as important threat factors.

This challenge creates potential friction between Israel and this coalition and requires appropriate solutions. For its part, Israel seeks to maintain freedom of action in the Syrian theater, given the threats to its security emerging there, mainly preventing Iran and Hezbollah from strengthening in Syria.

A related question concerns Russia’s relations with Israel, which are currently positive. Russia regards Israel as a partner and is aware of Israel’s deterrent capabilities. Russia wishes to avoid damage to its relations with Israel and will certainly continue to contain any potential for military conflict with Israel. At the same time, relations between Israel and Russia are affected both by regional events and tensions between the global powers.

In this evolving reality, Israel has to take into account that Russia will continue to play a significant role in the region in the visible future, while there is unclear if Russia is Israel’s potential partner or competitor in future regional arrangements. Jerusalem cannot always assume that Moscow will consider Israel’s interests, if these compete with those of Russia itself. However, the current circumstances and developments expected in the region require both countries to maintain proper relations and mutual consideration to continue the existing system of coordination, which has proven to be reliable and effective. The given realities require maintaining strategic dialogue in order to reach mutual understanding to establish new rules of the regional game.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.