Russia’s war in Ukraine jolts Iran, Syria and Middle East security
Russia’s war in Ukraine has serious repercussions for the Middle East — affecting, in particular, Iranian entrenchment in Syria and regional security for Israel and the United States.
In 2015, Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, then general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, flew to Moscow to meet with Kremlin officials just weeks after the conclusion of the original Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The goal was to change the course of Syria’s civil war, which looked bleak for their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The meeting “forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad,” turning the course of the war in their favor. The successful outcome allowed Iran to move with confidence toward its primary objective: creating a vassal state in Syria, as it had in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
With Syria firmly in hand, Russia felt certain that its expanded air base in Khmeimim and its warm-water naval port in Tartus on the Mediterranean would become a permanent presence to establish Russian power in the vacuum left by U.S. withdrawal from the region. The most visible sign of U.S. disengagement came when President Obama outsourced its influence by deputizing Russia to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons. Talk about putting the wolf in charge of the hen house!
Then Russia became concerned that Iranian adventurism and entrenchment in Syria could endanger its prized military possessions by provoking Israel. So, Russia allowed Israel almost unfettered access to strike Iranian drone and missile bases in Syria, and enabled the transfer of precision-guided weapons to Hezbollah, which was now the de facto power in Lebanon and embedded in Syria.
That status quo held until now.
According to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Arabic newspaper headquartered in London, “With Russia preoccupied with its war in Ukraine, Tehran is carrying out the process of filling the vacuum left by Moscow in Syria.” Just as Russia filled the vacuum that the U.S. left in the Middle East, Iran is filling the void that Russia is leaving by withdrawing from Syria. And this could portend a fundamental deterioration of regional stability.
For years, Iran has been ethnically cleansing Syria’s Sunni majority and repopulating southern Syria with foreign fighters and their families from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is a war crime, violating Article 49 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention — prohibiting the deportation of a civilian population. Unfortunately, the West has been fixated on restarting a terrible nuclear deal with Iran instead of holding Iran to account for this and many other violations of international law.
Russia is furious with Israel because its foreign minister accused Russia of war crimes. Vladimir Putin may want to punish Israel by ending the security coordination in Syria that allowed Israel to hit Iranian targets without activating Russian air defenses. As Iran feels less restrained by Russia, it may choose to be more provocative and to probe Israeli defenses with its growing, sophisticated drone fleet.
This scenario increases the possibility of war in the Middle East. Even if it wanted to calm the situation, Russia may have lost influence with Iran — especially since Russia’s military failures in Ukraine have consumed Putin’s attention. Interestingly, in 2014, Russia increased its military involvement in Syria to deflect the world’s attention from its illegal conquest and annexation of Crimea, the forerunner of today’s war. A new regional war between Iranian proxies from Israel’s north may be part of a Russian strategy to deflect attention from its war crimes in Ukraine today.
How does this affect American national security interests? Any instability in the Middle East is bad news for the United States. When Israel is forced to go to war, it presents difficult diplomatic positions for America. Just as Iran was emboldened to step up its involvement in Syria after the 2015 nuclear agreement, it may feel empowered by Russia’s withdrawal from Syria to up the ante — especially if a new nuclear deal provides hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and new trade opportunities. Even without that agreement, Russia will need Iran to protect its interests in Syria, which Iran may interpret as a sign that it can be more forceful with Israel.
American troops in Syria, targeted by Iranian proxy forces, will remain in the crosshairs of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Even during this year’s nuclear talks, when you might expect an adversary to show some restraint, Iran’s contempt for America manifested itself again with an April 7 attack on U.S. service members in Deir ez-Zor province, four of whom were injured. Gen. Michael Kurilla, the new commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East, has said that returning to a deal that includes unfreezing Iranian funds could increase risks to American troops in the region.
Turkey, a member of NATO, is on the opposite side of Iran in Syria — but for very different reasons. Turkey is the protector of the last remaining Sunni rebel enclave in northwest Syria, embedded with Sunni jihadists. In Syria, Turkey also has pursued ethnic cleansing, but of Kurds, who have been America’s ally. As long as Russia, Iran and Syria do not challenge Turkey’s Syrian territorial expansion or impede its attacks on Syrian Kurds, Turkey isn’t likely to be drawn into the next phase of the Syrian war.
Israel may be in the most precarious situation given Russia’s focus on salvaging its Ukrainian campaign. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel coordinated hundreds of sorties and missile strikes against Iranian interests in Syria without activating Russian anti-missile systems. Now, all bets are off. Syria has become a tertiary issue for Russia and Iran is less restrained. Israel knows that Russia may choose to pay Israel back by activating its missile defense against Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, forcing Israel to then target Russian defenses.
Wars sometimes cause unintended effects in faraway military theaters. Next, these echoes may be apparent in the Levant — Israel, Syria and Lebanon. This would present yet another global problem the U.S. does not need, potentially distracting America from its foreign policy pivot toward China and the East.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/ Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.