Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Many commentators and politicians say Vladimir Putin’s Russia is every bit as mysterious and enigmatic as its predecessor. An astonishing recent declaration by the president, however, at the Russian equivalent of the Davos conclave, in St Petersburg, casts a whole new light on the country’s involvement in the Middle East, which in recent years has become more and more extensive.
Putin said two completely unexpected things: first, that Iran
should evacuate its forces from Syria and stop interfering with
events in the northern Arab arc (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon). Second,
and equally startling, he said that Israel has a right to defend its
borders, whether in the north or in the south (Hezbollah and
Hamas territories respectively). All this within a few days of a
meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who can now claim yet another foreign policy success.
Assuming Putin means what he says, and there is no a priori
reason to doubt him, what does this portend in terms of
Russian policy and the positions of Iran and the US in the
region? I think the answer is, in fact, fairly simple: Putin is interested in one overriding objective in the Middle East, and
that is developing and protecting his naval and air bases on the
Syrian coast. Anything that puts that deployment in jeopardy
he will oppose. Iran’s rampaging around the area is unhelpful
and the Assad regime in Damascus is no longer in danger of
The Assad regime owes its survival to Russia and knows it. It
also knows that under the present circumstances, Russia can deploy
its naval and air assets without hindrance from anyone.
As far as Russia is concerned, Iran has performed its function in
Syria of assisting in the survival of the Assad regime and its
continued presence is unhelpful. Therefore, the Iranians should
Israel is by all odds the most powerful country in the region militarily, and contrary to common belief, Putin is no antisemite
Israel is by all odds the most powerful country in the region militarily, and contrary to common belief, Putin is no antisemite. Indeed, quite the contrary. He and Netanyahu have forged a modus vivendi that is approaching the status of an
alliance. That is not a problem for the Trump administration, the attitude of which towards Russia is ambivalent at best and towards Israel that of a valued ally, while Iran is more and more in the administration’s line of fire. Along with all this, Assad is not just an indifferent observer. He is as well-informed as anyone and thus is well-aware that Putin is in no danger in Moscow and Israel is not going t0 become less militarily dominant any time in the near future, if ever.
Iran, on the other hand, is obviously trying to turn Iraq,
Syria and Lebanon into semi-sovereign satellite countries,
which he is not interested in. On the other hand, he cannot
challenge Iranian interests directly and thus will be very happy
for Russia to play the role of spoiler to Iranian strategic plans.
The same is true for Hezbollah and Hamas, which is simply of no
concern to Russia or Assad. Neither has any incentive to
oppose Israeli defense plans on its periphery and, in fact, both
are apparently happy to guarantee that there will be no Iranian
presence on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights; all of which is very good news to Israel and to the US. Russia
has for all practical purposes become a tactical regional ally of
As for Iran, it may well be that the ayatollahs and their
acolytes will not react very strongly to Czar Vladimir’s new
ukase. Between large ethnic minorities that despise them and
secular Persians who hate them, relatively low natural gas and
oil prices, and a disastrous ongoing drought, coupled with anti-
regime demonstrations taking place almost daily throughout
the country, the mullahs might well welcome an excuse to
declare victory and evacuate Syria in order to concentrate the
forces of repression in their home country. After all, survival is
priority number one for the theocracy that misgoverns Iran.
The southern Sunni powers, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the
Gulf states (with the usual exception of Qatar), will welcome
Putin’s initiatives with open arms. They have long decided that
Israel is an important, if unacknowledged, ally and Iran their
As for the other significant regional player, Turkey is in no
position to oppose Russian plans, and as the domestic economic
and political situations continue to deteriorate, it will have to
imitate Iran in paying more attention to the domestic front and
less to adventures abroad.
Significant developments indeed!