One of the interesting things about the Israeli attack on Iranian forces in Syria is the relative silence from the Russians. The first thing it shows is that Russia has no interest in adding its forces to those of Iran in some sort of unified effort, which is undoubtedly a good thing for everyone except the Iranians on the ground in Syria. Both Russia and Iran have a shared interest in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, but that doesn’t imply there is much cooperation between the two. Russia wants to retain Syria as a client state for geopolitical bragging rights, a customer for arms sales, a testing ground for weapons, and as a victory in their ongoing zero-sum struggle with the USA. Iran wants to throw its weight around the region and threaten Israel from over the border.
In that latter regard, Russia has no major beef with Israel and little interest in helping Iranian forces menace it from Syrian soil. Indeed, Russia would probably be pleased to see Iranian forces getting pummeled in Syria by Israeli planes were it not Russia’s air defence systems that were supposed to stop that sort of thing. There’s a good article on Israel’s strengthening ties with Russia in the face of Iranian attacks here, which includes the following on weapons sales:
The Israeli prime minister had a number of talking points he wanted to ensure were well-delivered to the Russian side, said a source in the Kremlin familiar with the Putin-Netanyahu meeting. The source, who spoke with Al-Monitor not for attribution, said the first point, a minor one, was Russia’s potential delivery of S-300 missile systems to Syria. Even before Netanyahu’s visit, Israel was signaling to Russia that Israel didn’t favor the delivery.
Moscow had said it was leaning toward not providing Syria with the missiles, but after a US-led strike on Syria last month, Russia isn’t ruling out the idea. Many observers interpreted a bombastically worded statement from Russia as an actual intent to deliver the weapons, but Russia probably considered it more as a deterrent against potential foreign strikes and a bargaining chip in talks with Israel and, possibly, with the United States.
If Moscow indeed goes through with the S-300 delivery, Israel will tolerate it as long as Russians maintain control over the system. If, however, the Syrian military plans to operate the missiles, Israel will have a stronger reaction, but probably not an extreme one.
“The entire Syrian air defense system is based on Soviet- and Russian-made arms. The S-300 is a more powerful system and we wouldn’t have liked its appearance. But as much as we are ready to [take on] Syrian defenses, we would be ready to see how to tackle the S-300,” former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said.
Ya’alon also revealed that there is a “hotline” between the Russian Khmeimim air base in Syria and the Israeli Kirya command center in Tel Aviv. Ya’alon served as Israel’s defense minister from 2013 until May 2016 and helped establish the deconfliction phone line shortly after Russia began its campaign in Syria. The line is thought to have helped prevent a number of serious incidents.
This probably puts Russia in a unique position to act as peacemaker between Israel and Iran:
Russia has been acting as a “political shrink,” listening to complaints and fears that Israelis and Iranians have and prescribing them prescriptions of sorts to alleviate their grief. It’s a heavy burden, but also a political resource for Russia and its regional policies. Russia also has its own interests, including in Syria, that are not necessarily aligned with those of Israel or Iran. Taking sides would be folly.
As Sean Guillory says:
What Russia can actually do remains to be seen. But Putin wanted to be a power broker and this is part of the job. Given the US doesn’t appear to have a constructive role to play, who else has the clout in the region besides Russia?
— Sean Guillory (@seansrussiablog) May 11, 2018
Personally I don’t think this is a bad thing.