MOSCOW — Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu paid a two-day visit this week to Israel — his first as the top Russian military commander. On Oct. 16, Shoigu met in Tel Aviv with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and the Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of General Staff Gadi Eizenkot. On Tuesday, he was hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Hours before Shoigu landed in Tel Aviv, the Israeli air force destroyed a Syrian army anti-aircraft battery in an alleged retaliation to Damascus firing a missile at Israeli planes while they were on a reconnaissance mission over neighboring Lebanon. Israel said it informed Russia of the incident “in real-time mode” and “comprehensively briefed” Shoigu to alleviate a potentially negative response from Moscow.
Unlike Shoigu’s snap visit to Damascus in September, which was shrouded in mystery, on this trip to Israel he was clear about his purpose: “Besides the military and military-technical cooperation [between our countries], the main issue remains the fight against terrorism, as well as the [general] situation in the region. Separately, we’d like to discuss everything that has to do with Syria. [Russia’s] operation there is coming to its end. There are several points that require urgent solutions and discussion of further prospects. … There is a lot to talk about,” said Shoigu in his opening statement at the meeting with Liberman.
In response, Liberman said Israel “values its relations with Russia for the sincere, candid dialogue [between the two]. … I’m positive that this is the way to solve all the problems.” He spoke first in Russian and then repeated his remarks in Hebrew.
Shoigu’s allusions to military-technical cooperation imply the interest Israel apparently has in purchasing Russia’s heavy infantry fighting vehicle, the BMPT Terminator. Russia reportedly deployed the vehicle in Syria for field trials against the Islamic State (IS) and it came in handy for urban fights. Commenting on the prospects of the deal between Russia and Israel, Andrei Frolov, a military analyst and editor-in-chief of the Russian journal Eksport Vooruzheny (Arms Export), told Al-Monitor: “The Israelis have never directly bought arms from Russia. There were a few projects on the modernization of Soviet military equipment in third countries, but never a direct purchase — unlike the Russians, who did buy weapons from Israel. If the sale were to happen, it would be emblematic, yet we shouldn’t be overestimating the financial or military significance of the [potential] deal.”
What was more important in the Shoigu-Liberman talks was the military coordination between Moscow and Tel Aviv at the current stage, as well as how the two states are going to approach Syria and Iran in the long run.
Shoigu’s statements that the Russian campaign in Syria is “coming to its end” triggered a flurry of speculation over the future course of Moscow’s policies in the country. Frolov said the remarks — the way they were formulated — sound rather abstract: “It’s hard to tell whether it really is coming to its end. One needs to know the exact initial [operational] goals to be able to make precise conclusions.”
It’s hardly the first time Russia has proclaimed the end was near. In February, Shoigu said Russian troops would be coming home. In March, President Vladimir Putin announced the goals in Syria “were completed” and indeed ordered the drawdown of Russia’s main forces — but the Russian campaign is still going. In late August, Shoigu stated the war in Syria had reached a “de facto” end. In September, at a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin reiterated the idea, saying, “Conditions for peace have been created in Syria.” Last week the Russian Defense Ministry announced that “92% of the Syrian territory was freed from [IS].” So if the goal was “to defeat the terrorists,” as Putin proclaimed when Russia entered Syria two years ago, the mission is indeed coming to an end. Yet Russia is facing an array of other challenges, including complications over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s growing presence.
Iran was especially large on Shoigu’s agenda during the meeting with Netanyahu. Following the encounter, the Israeli prime minister wrote on his Twitter page, “Iran is attempting to establish itself militarily in Syria. I told the Russian DM: Iran needs to understand that Israel will not allow this.” Russia’s reputable Kommersant newspaper cites its sources in the Defense Ministry as saying the Shoigu-led delegation shared with the Israelis details of Russia’s air force operations in Syria and Iran’s contribution to the fight against terrorism in that country. Moscow also provided some information on the way the four de-escalation zones in Syria will function. Israel opposes the idea of Iran being one of the intermediaries in the process, but Russia is set to maintain the current framework.
Russia’s support for Hezbollah has also been on the agenda for the two parties, with the Russians supposedly assuring the Israelis that their dealings with the group don’t go beyond targeted planning of certain operations in Syria and that Moscow doesn’t supply it with arms.
Russian diplomacy takes pride in its flexibility and openness to different players in the Middle East. From Assad and Tehran to the Syrian opposition and Tel Aviv, from Doha to Riyadh, from Turks to Kurds and from Libya’s Gen. Khalifa Hifter to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Moscow tries to engage virtually all stakeholders. This is no easy mission, and the military incident between Israel and Syria on the day of Shoigu’s visit has exposed the objective limits of Russia’s power to keep conflict-bound actors apart.
Given Israel’s role in the region, its military power and its willingness to use it, it’s critical for Putin to continue the current level of communication with Netanyahu to ensure Russia’s own presence is immune from any Israeli assaults. But it’s also clear Israel is determined to stop Iran’s growing presence near Israel’s borders. At the same time, Tehran is resolved to expand and solidify its presence. Moscow doesn’t see that situation as its own fight and is working to dodge potential complications of ending up on either side.
Israel has been rather loyal to Russia’s military presence — and realizes its own gains from it — and Iran has been crucial to Russia on the ground in Syria. But Russia’s goals in Syria aren’t ultimately about either Israel or Iran. Moscow is, however, wary of each party trying to work Russia’s presence to the detriment of the other. For instance, Russian media outlets have recently raised questions about Iran’s intentions when it changed the location of an Iran-to-Hezbollah arms transfer point from the border with Lebanon to central Syria, closer to Palmyra. As a result of that change, Israel will have to fly deep into Syrian territory to make its bombing raids on the transfer point and could at some point clash with Russian air forces or harm Russian advisers thought to be stationed at Palmyra.
Such moves are likely to happen more often and represent a long-term challenge to Moscow. Russia will need to sit down with Israel and seriously talk about whether Israel’s interests can be squared with Russia’s interests, and whether Moscow really has any leverage over Tehran, whether in Syria or beyond. The Shoigu visit appears to be important in this very regard. Similar conversations need to be held with Iran — and that’s the likely goal of Putin’s visit to Tehran in early November.