Russia and Iran are deepening military ties, engaging in a closer defense pact that includes sharing their most advanced weapons systems with each other, while seeking to increase mutual cooperation in the Middle East, especially as it concerns Syria.
Russia continues to prop-up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, supplying his regime with anti-missile defense systems and providing business deals. The Russians have also opened the way for the Iranians to do business in Syria.
Middle East expert, Lt. Col. (res.) Sarit Zehavi, founder of the Alma Center explains: “The Russians are not leaving Syria. They are just wanting to stay, and they have their assets there. They are enabling the Iranians to have their assets there, so there is room for everybody.”
Meanwhile, the Iranians are intent on building up southern Syria, establishing militias inside the country, and deploying Hezbollah with two units on the Syrian Golan Heights.
According to Zehavi, “Iran is working with local and foreign militias; also, on civilian levels to establish civilians in southern Syria, as well.” Zehavi adds that it’s an effort to replica the model of south Lebanon into Syria. “They are not succeeding in everything. In southern Syria, we do not see a Syrian government presence or sovereignty.”
Despite this, for Israel it is a troubling development to watch the closer defense relationship developing between Russia and Iran, along with a greater military influence of Iran on Israel’s border with Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that Israel will continue to stop Iran from smuggling precision weapons close to Israel’s borders, a veiled threat against Iranian shipments to Hezbollah that sometimes get through Syrian territory.
Diplomatic disagreements between Russia and Israel over Israel’s Ukraine policy, continue, which the Russians have used as leverage to restrict the flow of Russian Aliyah to Israel. But, so far, it has not affected the military de-confliction policy between Russia and Israel over Syrian skies. Russia does not stop Israel’s bombing raids of Iranian military bases in Syria, and there has not been a recent public challenge from Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, the question remains as to whether the current de-confliction policy between Israel and Russia will be tested, as Russia draws closer and closer to Iran.
This is happening in an atmosphere of tension between Russian forces and American forces in eastern Syria. Some analysts think that America’s presence in Syria cannot be indefinite to keep northeast Syria stable. Others are concerned that, if U.S. forces withdraw, it will be an opportunity for the vacuum to be filled by Russia, working with Iran, eventually against Israel’s interests in the region.
Meanwhile, Russia has been challenging its de-confliction policy with the United States over skies in eastern Syria. Reports indicate that Russia wants to push the U.S. Air Force out of the area. In an on-line press briefing with U.S. Air Force Lt. General Alexus Grynkewich, he talked about the increasingly unsafe and unprofessional behavior by Russian aircraft operating in Syria.
According to Grynkewich, the Russians have been flying in a more assertive manner and not adhering to the protocols agreed upon with the United States. Grynkewich complained that Russian fighter jets are trying to dominate the skies in an area that has long been recognized as coalition airspace. Therefore, America decided to send its most superior fighter jets, the F-22 Raptors, into that air space to show U.S. superiority over Russia in the region.
Grynkewich explains that the fighter pilots that are deployed now into Syria from Russia are being rewarded for their unprofessional behavior. “The biggest risk for all of us is these aircraft are not flying on training missions; they are on combat missions. Our aircraft have live weapons on board; the Russian aircraft have live weapons on board. And, this kind of behavior just really increases the risk of a miscalculation; some sort of an incident occurring that is unintentional.”
Grynkewich adds that the growing relationship between Iran and Russia will have a big impact on exactly how Iran moderates or does not moderate its behavior in Syria. Iran feels that Russia owes it something, and that Russia is, in some way, beholden to Iran.
Talking about the U.S. led coalition in Syria, he acknowledges, “The Iranians certainly want the coalition to depart from Syria; and they want that, so they have freedom of action to have Iranian-aligned groups more advanced conventional weapons and lethal capabilities across Syria for their own purposes — to threaten Israel or to threaten other interests with whom they disagree.”
Grynkewich reiterates U.S. support for Israel. “The growing connection between Russia and Iran, and if they are able to open up avenues where Iran is able to push lethal aid through Syria that threatens Israel, that’s certainly a concern for the United States. Israel is clearly one of our close partners in the region…”
The Russian relationship with Iran is being watched closely by both the U.S. and Israel, who share a strong defense alliance. American officials often speak of the ironclad commitment to the defense of Israel, which Grynkewich supports. For now. U.S. forces, including Air Forces Central, will continue to bring reinforcements into eastern Syria to deter Russia’s aggression in the Middle East region.