Moscow’s Strategic Indifference in Syria

Repercussions from Hamas’ October 7 attack continue to reverberate beyond Israel’s borders. In Syria, skirmishes between Iranian-backed militias, Israeli forces, and American troops are complicating efforts to contain the fighting.

But as diplomats from Doha to Downing Street race to prevent a wider war, Russia, a key Syrian ally, has been conspicuously quiet. For Moscow, chaos may be a means to an end. 

After decades of relative calm, fighting along Syria’s southern border with Israel has returned. Initial clashes involved the exchange of mortar fire, but tensions escalated significantly on November 10, when an armed drone reportedly flew more than 400 kilometers from southern Syria across Jordan to hit an Israeli school in the city of Eilat. 

In response, Israel targeted not only the perpetrators of the attack – without naming them – but also two Syrian airports believed to serve as transit hubs for weapons to Iranian-backed militias throughout the region.

While concerns are mounting that these escalations could turn Syria into a new front in the Israel-Hamas war, Moscow’s attempts to defuse the situation carry little clout, experts say. 

Informed diplomats and analysts tell me that Moscow, despite being among President Bashar Al Assad’s closest allies, isn’t actively trying to mitigate the proxy war in Syria. This contrasts with Moscow’s previous role as mediator in Syria five years ago, when Russia relayed Israeli messages to Iran’s leadership to help contain hostilities in May 2018.

In explaining the current silence, some sources suggest that Russia lacks sufficient leverage to influence a de-escalation. With Iran distancing itself from this round of fighting, Moscow’s ability to get Tehran to the table is limited.

At the same time, Russia stands to benefit from the consequences of these escalations, particularly because they’re perceived as posing no direct threat to Moscow. Dmitry Peskov, the Russian presidential spokesman, said recently that the Kremlin has “no concerns about Russia being drawn into the conflict.”

In truth, Russia has done more than observe. The Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group, which operates in Syria, has been tasked with delivering Russian-made surface-to-air SA-22 missile defense systems to Hezbollah, according to American intelligence sources.

Moscow may even be doing more than arming its allies. Classified documents leaked earlier this year revealed the creation of a coordination center involving Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime. Its purpose is to coordinate efforts to increase risks for United States military personnel in Syria – and to eventually compel their withdrawal. 

To that end, US troops are increasingly under fire. In the month since Hamas’ attack, US soldiers operating in Syria and Iraq have been hit by at least 40 separate drone and rocket attacks launched by Iranian-backed militia groups.

The departure of the US would be a strategic victory for Moscow, as it would open the door for the Syrian regime to regain control of the resource-rich northeast, handing Russia substantial financial gains.

Assuming Washington stays put, which seems likely for now, the next-best outcome is a preoccupied foe. Moscow anticipates that increased American military support for Israel will divert resources away from Ukraine.  

This is far from wishful thinking. Last month, US President Joe Biden sent a $106 billion emergency spending package request to Congress, which included funding for both Israel and Ukraine. Instead of approving the entire request, Republicans focused their efforts on passing a bill to provide only $14.3 billion in emergency aid to Israel. The bill passed the House of Representatives before being blocked by Democrats in the Senate.

Even if Biden does manage to keep Ukraine atop the US funding agenda, the increased demand for US weapons could prompt Washington to prioritize deliveries to Israel or split supplies between the two fronts. This situation might lead to delays in arms deliveries to Ukraine, causing concern for Kyiv.

At its most basic, Moscow views the Israel-Hamas conflict as a beneficial distraction from the war in Ukraine and its atrocities committed there. The heightened divisions in Europe over Gaza, coupled with a surge in anti-American sentiment across the Middle East and the Global South due to Biden’s unequivocal pro-Israel stance, could hurt America’s diplomacy and image.

While the frequency of attacks in Syria against US forces and toward Israel have increased in recent weeks, Russia is quietly lurking in the wings, ready to reap the rewards if chaos continues.

Most frustratingly, all Russia needs to do to benefit from its strategic indifference in Syria is sit back and wait.

Dr Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program. X: @HaidHaid22


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