Whose side will Putin take in the Israel-Iran conflict?

How does the conflict between Jerusalem and Tehran fit into Moscow’s overall interests in Syria?

By: Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

Last week’s dramatic military escalation between Israel and Iran received wide international coverage. However, a key player in Syria’s future kept an unusually low profile: Russia. How does the conflict between Jerusalem and Tehran fit into Moscow’s overall interests in Syria?

In order to address this issue, Russia’s interests in Syria must be properly identified. During the Cold War, Syria served as Moscow’s most dedicated client state in the Middle East. While the Cold War has officially ended, Russia’s interests in the region remain.

Moscow’s most important asset in Syria is its naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean city of Tartus. This naval base is crucial to Russia because it is Moscow’s only direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. Without this base, Russian ships would have to resupply by going through volatile Turkish waters in order to reach Russian Black Sea naval bases.

From Russia’s point of view, the Assad regime is a guarantee that the Tartus naval base does not end up under Islamist control. This is the main reason why Russia has emerged as Assad’s strongest backer in the Syrian civil war. At the same time, Russia maintains good relations with Israel and is not interested in an escalation in Syria that undermines its military assets.

By contrast, Syria’s other backer, Iran, is a leading sponsor of global terrorism committed to Israel’s destruction. Israel has made it clear in both words and action that it will not tolerate a military presence of the genocidal Iranian regime on its northern border.

Iran’s military aggression against Israel and Jerusalem’s powerful response did not go unnoticed in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week as a guest of honor at the annual Victory Parade in Moscow. The interests of Russia and Israel will never converge in Syria or elsewhere, but both countries want stability in Syria. Putin was most likely unhappy with Iran’s military attack on Israel because it ultimately undermines stability in Syria.

While Russia and Iran are partners in supporting the Assad regime, they are also competitors for influence in the war-torn country. In practice, this means that Moscow opposes military operations that undermine the Assad regime but can live with military operations against Iranian targets in Syria. This explains why Russia was very vocal in its condemnation of the US-led attack on the Assad regime’s assets. By contrast, it is likely that Moscow is secretly pleased that Israel seriously decimated Iran’s military influence in Syria.

As long as Russia’s assets in Syria are not threatened, Moscow will likely continue to take a backseat in the ongoing confrontation between Iran and Israel.