I just returned from a quick trip to Moscow, where I had a chance to talk to a few Russian academics and foreign policy experts about what Russia is up to in Syria and get some Russian views on its relationships with Israel and Iran. Here are a few brief observations about what I learned, with the caveat that they are the result of a small sample size and hardly a wide-ranging survey.
First, contrary to a sense in the U.S. and in Israel that Bashar al-Assad is now in a dominant position vis-à-vis the various opposition groups but that the Syrian civil war has not quite wound down yet, Russia views its own incursion into Syria as a successful mission accomplished. Russian experts describe Russia’s involvement in similar terms to the way the U.S. described the global war on terrorism that began after the September 11 attacks, and Syria is seen as a clear victory. The purpose was to roll back ISIS’s territorial gains and decimate the group, and Russia has played a principal role in accomplishing that task.
Furthermore, because Russia relied heavily on the use of military contractors rather than Russian soldiers, the public costs have been low. Much as Americans would have a more difficult time seeing body bags containing Marines than they would seeing body bags of Blackwater mercenaries, Russians have not been bombarded with images of dead soldiers. In addition, Russia’s involvement in Syria has not seen the types of casualties as Russia sustained in Chechnya, for instance, or like the U.S. suffered at the height of the Iraq War, and thus Russian involvement in Syria has not been controversial with the Russian public. Were something to change and Russian soldiers were to be killed in significant numbers, a few of the people I spoke with felt that it would be more difficult for the government to sustain deep involvement in Syria. I found it striking given how the Syrian civil war is dominating the policy discussion in Washington how little of a sense of urgency there seemed to be about it in Moscow. It reflects what an easy win this has been for Russia and how much better the Kremlin has managed this than successive White Houses.
Second, Russia does not view Assad as a valued ally the way Iran does, but as the key to stability and little more. In some ways, however, that makes Russian support of Assad just as unwavering as Iranian support, since Russia’s conception of victory in Syria is entirely a result of a stabilized Syria and is dependent on this stability continuing. Israel in the past three weeks has moved from remaining largely silent about the Assad regime itself to publicly threatening to topple it should Iran continue to build up its permanent military presence in Syrian territory. The way that Russia views Assad suggests that this might backfire, since Russia appears willing to tolerate Israeli strikes on Iranian positions but not an Israeli move against the Syrian government. Israel’s aim in threatening Assad has been to deter Iran, but the consequence may be a heightened chance of clashing with Russia. While Russia’s announcement that it would be providing the Syrian regime with unspecified air defense systems – widely assumed to be S-300 missile batteries – was a response to the joint U.S.-UK-France missile strike on Assad’s chemical weapons facilities rather than Israel’s own operation against the T-4 airbase, it is Israel whose operations will be most limited by Russian deployment of S-300s on Syria’s behalf. If the aim is to deter Iran from hardening its position in Syria without running afoul of Russia, Israel may need to reassess its new strategy of threatening to take out the Assad regime and go back to its more narrow focus on Iran itself.
Third, everyone I spoke with viewed Russia’s relationship with Israel to be a much closer and more comprehensive one than its relationship with Iran. Russian-Iranian ties were described in purely interests-based and largely economic terms, with no sense of real affinity or cultural ties between the two countries. In contrast, Russia’s relationship with Israel was described in a more sweeping way. Israel is seen as an important trading partner, but also as a country that Russians like to visit, as important due to Israel’s large Russian-speaking population, and as a country with many cultural, academic, and societal ties with Russia. There was also sympathy for Israel’s domestic security concerns with terrorism, and an understanding that is less common among Americans about things like overbearing Israeli security at Ben Gurion and the corresponding suspicion at border control about travelers who have been to other countries in the region. I had a sense that Russia will be extremely reluctant to downgrade its relationship with Israel, but that the maneuvering in Syria means that such a scenario cannot be ruled out.
Finally, I was struck by the way in which Russian experts talk about the Russian military as an independent actor. Escalated Russian involvement in Syria and the debate over giving Assad more advanced air defense systems were consistently described in a way that sounded odd to my American ears, as it was always portrayed as something that the military – rather than the government or the extended foreign policy apparatus – would decide. I already understood the outsized role that the military plays in Russian affairs as a continuing legacy of the Soviet period, but the notion of the military almost as an independent actor was an interesting one.
Many Americans understand the Syrian civil war as a major foreign policy crisis with Russia front-and-center. But in the Russian capital itself, people view Assad as a necessary evil and see the wider struggle between outside powers in Syria as almost ancillary to a more targeted fight against terrorism. The opinions I encountered on the Syrian leadership, and Russia’s relations with Iran and Israel, among other topics, provide an interesting window into the broader disparity in opinion between Washington and Moscow and the difficulty Jerusalem is having in navigating in Syria.