Russia can keep the peace between Israel and Iran.
Israel’s collaboration with Russia is based out of necessity, rather than any faith that Moscow has taken its side in its regional confrontation with Iran. Both Assad and his Iranian allies, after all, were steadily losing ground in 2015 until Putin’s military intervention changed the course of the war. Israeli officials have largely dismissed Russia’s promises that it could keep Iranian forces 53 miles away from the Israeli border—such promises meant little, they said, when Iran has missiles that can travel more than 100 miles.
Israel’s ties with Russia represent “an interest-based relationship,” Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and prominent opposition leader, told me. “I doubt Russia is currently capable of driving Iran out of Syria or that Russia will undertake that effort just because of Israel.”
Those doubts about Putin’s willingness and ability to constrain Iran are only increasing. A recent article published by the Washington, D.C.–based Middle East Institute analyzed several signs that Russia is quietly reducing its military presence on the ground in Syria, a step that would only decrease Putin’s leverage with Iran and Assad. Meanwhile, Iran and its allies have embedded themselves within Syrian security institutions, making it impossible to distinguish them from the country’s regular army.
This development could spell the end for Israeli-Russian cooperation in Syria. “Israeli officials increasingly argue that the time for this to work has expired,” Hanna Notte, a Russia analyst and political officer for the Shaikh Group, a political consultancy, said. “There is an argument that it will become increasingly difficult to target [Iran and Hezbollah] without striking Syrian soldiers, and Russia won’t be able to turn a blind eye to that.”
As Israel’s military officials grapple with this dilemma, some of its political leaders have sought to use the war to solidify their country’s hold over the Golan Heights. Israel captured the strategically important area during the 1967 war, and subsequently annexed it in 1981. No country, however, has recognized the Golan as Israeli territory. Prominent Israeli politicians, such as Lapid and current Education Minister Naftali Bennett, are now pressing the United States to recognize Israel’s annexation of the territory.
Lapid in particular has actively pursued the issue, raising it during a meeting with U.S. lawmakers in Washington and delivering a speech before the Knesset on the topic. “Anyone with an understanding of the Middle East knows that Israel will never return the Golan Heights to Assad, a mass murderer whose partners, Iran and Hezbollah, are sworn to our destruction,” he told me. “Recognition of Israeli sovereignty is historically just, strategically smart, and will allow the world to extract a price from Assad for his despicable behavior without putting boots on the ground in Syria.”