With Israel launching air strikes against Iranian positions in Syria, the strategic interests of Russia and Iran seem to be on a divergent path.

A truck removes rubble from damage in a street at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, Saturday, October  6, 2018.
A truck removes rubble from damage in a street at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, Saturday, October 6, 2018. (AP)

Two days after Israel struck Iran's Quds Forces in Syria, Russia responded meekly. 

Instead of adopting tough rhetoric against Israel for targeting the allied Iranian forces, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Tel Aviv should not deliver air strikes against a 'sovereign state.'

"The escalation of hostilities in the region is not in line with the interests of Middle East states, including Israel," Zakharova said in what appeared to be a broad statement delivered over a serious geopolitical question. 

Just a month ago in December 2018, Moscow even displayed tacit support to Israel's military operation against pro-Iranian Hezbollah group in the south of Lebanon. 

So how does Russia balance its relations with Israel and Iran? 

Without Iran's support Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad would have been swept out of power and both Tehran and Moscow have worked in tandem to ensure the rebel forces are kept at bay.

Since the late sixteenth century, Iran and Russia have engaged in both confrontation and collaboration. Both powers have had competing ambitions for regional influence, which at times led them to engage in clashes and skirmishes.

According to Stephen J. Flanagan, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation, Iranians have "maintained a defensive attitude" towards Russia, largely perceiving it as a potential threat. 

But since then trade between the two countries have increased in the last two decades, with Moscow even deciding to back Tehran when the US imposed new oil sanctions against the Shia-majority country in March 2018.

Foreign military attaches and journalists attend a briefing by the Russian Defense Ministry as the 9M729 land-based cruise missile is displayed, right, in Kubinka outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, January 23, 2019.
Foreign military attaches and journalists attend a briefing by the Russian Defense Ministry as the 9M729 land-based cruise missile is displayed, right, in Kubinka outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, January 23, 2019. (AP)

Conflicting strategic interests 
Israel has taken an aggressive military approach against Iran, declaring its intent to preempt Tehran's nuclear program before it could manufacture nuclear warheads. 

But Israel's anti-Iran policy somehow contradicts Moscow's recent diplomatic moves since Russia provides technical assistance to Iran's nuclear program, supplies it with weapons, and gives it diplomatic support at the United Nations.

In January 2007, Israeli officials voiced "extreme concern" over Russia's sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. They warned, "We hope they understand that this is a threat that could come back to them as well."

Iran says it plans to buy from Russia advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that could detect aircraft sent to destroy its nuclear facilities. 

Syria, which backs Hezbollah who battled Israel in Lebanon in 2006, has reportedly asked for the purchase of similar weapons, too.
Russia has not confirmed the reports. But recently, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his government was prepared to sell Syria arms with a "defensive character." Israel claims Russian missiles sold to Syria made their way into Hezbollah's hands in the 2006 war, though it has not accused Russia of directly arming the guerrilla group.
After four decades of Cold War animosity, ties between Moscow and Israel improved significantly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Israel is also home to more than 1 million Soviet emigres.

In this Tuesday, August 27, 2013 file photo, Russian air defense missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia.
In this Tuesday, August 27, 2013 file photo, Russian air defense missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia. (AP)

Syrian war
Israel is  concerned that its enemy Iran may establish a long-term military presence in neighbouring Syria. Tel Aviv says it has conducted more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.

Some observers argue that an immediate US troop pullout from Syria will create a power vacuum and allow Iran to further expand its influence in Syria, which includes consolidating a "land bridge" to the Mediterranean and bringing Tehran's military capabilities closer to Israel's northern borders.

Missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019.
Missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019. (Ihlas Haber Ajansi)

Do Israel and Russia coordinate in Syria?

The two countries have long had a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in Syria, but Israel has had to tread more carefully in recent months.

A friendly fire incident in September that led to a Russian plane being downed during an Israeli raid angered the Kremlin. As part of its response, Russia delivered the advanced S-300 air defence system to Syria.

Israel has become more dependent on Russia’s future plans on Syria to keep Iran away from the region, especially after the US decision to withdraw from Syria. Any Israeli military operation to eradicate the Iranian forces depends on Russia, which up till now has shown little interest or ability to influence Iran’s actions. 

Moscow hasn’t even been able to promise to move Iran’s forces away from the Israeli border and Russia is unlikely to rush to Iran’s defence in Syria as long as the escalation with Israel doesn’t threaten Assad’s regime.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies