In their July 21 meeting in Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went to great pains to show how close the Russian-Iranian relationship has become. Zarif even declared that, “Relations between Moscow and Tehran are currently the best in the last decade.” The signing of the Iran-Syria air defense pact in Damascus on July 8, however, may portend increasing friction between Russia and Iran over Syria.
Up until now, Russia has been the primary purveyor of air defense weaponry to Damascus. Additionally, Russian forces have been able to operate their own air defense missiles at their bases in Syria. This has not, however, stopped Israeli forces from launching numerous strikes inside Syria against Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and even Iranian assets. Syrian efforts to intercept Israeli missiles or attack Israeli jet fighters in Syrian airspace, though, have largely failed, since the air defense weaponry Moscow has provided to Damascus is largely old and no match for more advanced Israeli weaponry. Moscow did recently provide some more advanced weaponry to Syria, but it reportedly remains under Russian control and is not operational. Unfortunately for Syria, Russian forces have used neither their own nor the Syrian missiles under their control to disrupt Israeli attacks inside Syria. This is because there is a Russian-Israeli deconfliction agreement with regard to Syria. It apparently stipulates that Israel shall not target Russian forces or facilities in exchange for Russian forces not interfering with Israeli attacks on Syrian, Hezbollah, or Iranian targets.
Needless to say, neither Damascus nor Tehran has been happy about Moscow’s unwillingness to enable themselves or Syria to halt Israeli attacks. The signing of the Iran-Syria air defense pact, though, may change this. Under its terms, Tehran will provide Iranian-developed air defense missiles to Damascus. While the capabilities of these missiles are uncertain—indeed, some of them may still be under development—Tehran boasts that they are as capable as the American Patriot system and even superior to a version of the Russian S-300.
Damascus and Tehran undoubtedly hope that these Iranian-supplied air defense missiles will increase Syria’s ability to stunt Israeli attacks and enable Damascus and Tehran to more readily achieve their aims, which may include increasing the transfer of more sophisticated Iranian weapons to both Syrian government forces and Hezbollah. The latter, of course, has been what Israel has long sought to prevent through its military strikes in Syria.
Consequently, the Israeli government cannot be expected to passively allow Iran and Syria to carry out the terms of their air defense pact. In truth, it would not be surprising if Israel stepped up its attacks against Syrian/Hezbollah/Iranian targets in order to prevent Iranian air defense weapons from being set up or to destroy them if they are.
Up until now, Russia’s monopoly on sophisticated air defense weapons in Syria has given the latter certain advantages. Even though there is a Russian-Israeli deconfliction agreement, Israel has some incentive to exercise restraint in Syria for fear of doing something that would result in Moscow giving more sophisticated weapons, as well as more control over them, to the Bashar al-Assad regime. There is also the possibility of Russia directly targeting Israeli forces, which Israel wants to avoid. Similarly, while Damascus and Tehran may be angry with Moscow for not allowing them to do more to frustrate Israeli attacks, they have remained deeply dependent on Russian air support for their battles against Assad’s many internal opponents. Especially when the survival of the Assad regime was still in doubt, Damascus and Tehran were not in a position to remonstrate with Moscow over this issue. Indeed, while some observers view President Vladimir Putin’s past statements about withdrawing Russian forces from Syria as aimed at placating the Russian public, they may also have been aimed at securing Syrian and Iranian compliance on not provoking even stronger Israeli involvement.
Under those circumstances, even Russian inaction could serve to restrain both Israel on the one hand and Syria and Iran on the other for fear that displeasing Moscow could lead it to lean toward the opposing side. But now that Assad’s opponents are no longer in a position to threaten his regime, the implementation of the Iran-Syria air defense pact would provide Damascus and Tehran with the possibility of increasing their activities—such as arming Lebanese Hezbollah—that Israel considers threatening. Similarly, the Iran-Syria defense pact could serve to motivate Israel to launch more vigorous attacks to prevent the accord from being implemented. Neither the Israelis nor the Iranians and Syrians are likely to heed Russian calls for restraint if each sees the other as escalating while having the means to retaliate.
Up until now, Russia has preferred not to take sides between Israel and Iran (and Hezbollah), choosing to keep them balanced against each other, instead. This would undoubtedly be compromised if the Iran-Syria air defense pact is actually implemented.
If the Israeli-Iranian conflict in Syria heats up, the United States, under either a Republican or a Democratic administration, would undoubtedly support Israel, thus, enabling Israel to be less cautious than Russia would like. Moscow might then face a choice between supporting Iran more and risking the conflict becoming a Russian-American one—something neither Washington nor Moscow wants—or staying out of the conflict and risk seeing Iran’s influence with the Assad regime grow stronger and Russia’s weaker as a result. In either case, the Iran-Syria air defense pact may cause a power shift in favor of Israel and Iran while reducing Russia’s ability to control events there, which is what the US experienced after Russian intervention in 2015.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
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