“Zionism is Making Us Stupid”: The Russian Relationship with Israel from the Soviets to Putin
The core argument to this essay is two-fold. First, that the Russian government cannot assist Israel, or the broader West, in containing the Iranian revolution in the Middle East. Specifically, Russia is unable to evict Iran’s troops from Syria. Second, Moscow has no interest in countering Iran; its own position rests on Iranian power and it will therefore continue fortifying an agenda that aims to push the West out and eliminate Israel.
The collapse of various efforts to publish this essay since late July/early August, and my own laggardness, have combined to produce one advantage: the evidence for this thesis is now much more copious. Indeed, after recent events it becomes rather harder to make the contrary case. Even Israeli officials have — just in the last few weeks — begun to doubt their prior certainty that they have a special understanding with the Russians that the Europeans and Americans simply don’t comprehend, guaranteeing Jerusalem’s freedom of action against Iran in Syria. The Israelis now tend to speak of a “turn” in Moscow’s behaviour, but the reality is otherwise.
Moscow’s posture has been, in its essentials, continuous since shortly after the foundation of the Jewish state. Whatever the subjective views of individuals within the current Russian leadership about Israeli security concerns, the Russian state is in a strategic partnership with an Iranian regime pledged to Israel’s destruction, and this is hardly a new situation. The Kremlin and its satellites waged an undeclared war against Israel from the 1950s onward, since which time the Middle East governments and terrorist groups most active in the long effort to extinguish Israel have been able to count on support from Moscow.
THE SOVIET UNION AND THE FOUNDING OF ISRAEL
The Soviet Union recognised Israel immediately. Moscow played up its role in defeating the Nazis as part of its political outreach to the nascent Jewish state. It is often pointed out that the Soviet Union also provided crucial military help, through its Czechoslovak puppet regime, to the Zionists during the war of independence. This is true. The intention of the Soviets in doing this, however, was to expel the British and to foster “a situation which was certain to provoke conflict in Palestine and great unrest throughout the Arab world, thus necessitating Soviet intervention to maintain order”. This kind of cynical behaviour, creating problems in order to solve them, was standard tradecraft for the Soviet Union right down to the end.
Vasili Mitrokhin, the archivist who spent twenty years transcribing KGB files he knew might never see the light of day, managed to defect just after the end of the Cold War and bring his incredible trove with him. These files, written up in a book co-authored with Christopher Andrew, The World War Going Our Way, tell the story of the Soviet approach to Israel, Zionism, and Jews domestically — issues the KGB, the actual driving force of much foreign and eventually domestic policy in the Soviet Empire, regarded as inextricably linked.
The Mitrokhin Archive shows that nearly as soon as Israel had secured her survival, the Soviet regime turned against her and by the early 1950s the sentiment was returned. The Israeli government publicly opposed Soviet aggression in Korea, for example. The KGB residency in Israel, Mitrokhin and Andrew note, “blamed the ‘[anti-Soviet] hysteria’ on the Israeli government’s desire both to convince the United States that it could count on Israeli support for its ‘aggressive plans’ and ‘continue to use Israel as a centre of espionage in the countries of the socialist camp’.” What the residency could not say, since it would have led to their execution, was what was blatantly obvious: Israeli public opinion soured on the Soviet Union because of Moscow’s antisemitic policies.
In January 1948, the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin had Solomon Mikhoels murdered. Mikhoels was a Yiddish actor and prominent member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), which had done so much work to raise the standing of the Soviet Union in the West during the war with Adolf Hitler. JAC had proposed that Soviet Jewry be allowed to reconstitute itself in Crimea; the peninsula had been emptied of Tatars by Stalin anyway, and Jews could hardly live comfortably in the former Nazi-occupied zones where their neighours had collaborated in an attempt at their extirpation. Stalin viewed it as a plot to establish a secessionist Jewish homeland that would be used as a base for American imperialism.
Using the Crimea plot pretext and other imaginary reasons, the rest of the JAC was arrested in late 1948; the leaders were charged with treason and tortured in custody for three years until they were shot in August 1952. In November that year, a hysterical show trial of Jews in the government of Czechoslovakia centred around Rudolf Slansky took place and eleven defendants were hanged in Prague the next month. A wide-scale purge of Jews from official positions took place in the Captive Nations. In the background, the so-called Doctors’ Case had been building since 1951 that aimed at the Jews of the Soviet Union itself.
The Soviet media in January 1953 broadcast details of an extraordinary scheme by a group of “saboteur-doctors” who “had as their goal shortening the lives of leaders of the Soviet Union by means of medical sabotage.” It was said these “killer doctors” had already murdered Aleksandr Shcherbakov, a founder of the Soviet Writers’ Union, who drank himself to death in May 1945, and Andrei Zhdanov, the heir-apparent to Stalin who died in August 1948. The “filthy face of this Zionist spy organization” was now exposed, said Pravda, as were the “Anglo-American war mongers” that stood behind the plot. In June 1951, the MGB, as the secret police were named, turned inward after a nine-month campaign against Jews in the bureaucracy, arresting its chief, Viktor Abakumov, the deputy of the investigative division, L.L. Shvartzman, and several other senior Jews in the MGB. These arrests were now linked to the Doctors’ Case.
In February 1953, with the Israeli public incensed after the judicial massacre in Czechoslovakia and the evident preparations for worse in the Soviet Union, the Soviet Embassy in Tel Aviv was bombed, leading to the suspension of all diplomatic relations for five months.
What exactly the Soviets had planned for the Jews under their rule remains a subject of contention.
When Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago in the West in the early 1970s, describing conditions in the Soviet slave labour camps, he noted that his best information said Stalin had intended hang the “doctor-murderers” in Red Square after a show trial at the beginning of March 1953, triggering an anti-Jewish pogrom. “At this point,” noted Solzhenitsyn, Stalin “would intervene generously to save the Jews” by deporting them to Siberia, where they could be worked to death.
In Stalin’s Last Crime, Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumova bring to light a letter, intended to be printed after the condemned doctors had been executed. Prominent Soviet Jews would sign the letter, demanding punishment for the Jewish plotters. The movement of Soviet Jewry to the East would spare them the Russian people’s wrath and isolate them from further Zionist-imperialist propaganda. The authors note that the Soviet regime had begun construction of “special camps” in Komi, Kazakhstan, and Irkutsk.
Boris Smolar’s book, Soviet Jewry Today and Tomorrow, notes that Stalin was felled by a massive stroke on 1 March 1953 — Purim, as it happened — apparently brought on after Vyacheslav Molotov (the formal head of government) and Kliment Voroshilov (the formal head of state) “dared to oppose, openly and strongly, his proposal” for deporting the Jews to the East. Stalin died on 5 March.
The uniqueness of the Holocaust is often viewed as providing at least a tincture of moral difference between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It appears that the final thing on Stalin’s mind was to abolish even this distinction.
THE EARLY COLD WAR
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jews from the Soviet Bloc were permitted to make aliya to Israel fairly freely. Part of this was doubtless as a means of fulfilling Stalin’s program of getting rid of the Jews in the Soviet Empire and part was, as the Mitrokhin Archive makes clear, so that the KGB could smuggle agents into the new state. The Soviets had the further advantage that Israel was a more open state than its neighbours, and therefore permitted an openly Moscow-line party, the United Workers’ Party (MAPAM), whose leadership was filled with Soviet agents like Aharon Cohen, Yaakov Riftin, Moshe Sneh, and Yisrael Beer, to operate — something the Soviet Union’s own allies in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq never allowed.
Even so, the Soviets ran into immediate problems. Mitrokhin highlights two reasons for this.
First, many of those Jewish émigrés who had pledged themselves to the Soviets before travelling to Israel cut contact with the Centre once they were in the country. Some were pushed away in the shadow of the Doctors’ Plot; others were drawn to Zionism, and only the true believers in Moscow were left in confusion about nationalism out-competing Communism in this way. Second, Israel had extremely competent security services. MAPAM was kept under close watch and the damage it could do largely neutralized. The one breach in Israeli intelligence, Ze’ev Avni, born Wolf Goldstein, who managed to infiltrate MOSSAD, was combed out relatively quickly, uncovered and arrested in April 1956. As Mitrokhin and Andrew document, the fact that Israel’s pre-emptive strike in June 1967 was a “complete surprise” to the KGB is the “best indication” that the Soviets had no high-level spies in the country.
When Golda Meir arrived in Moscow as Israel’s ambassador in October 1948, she attended a Rosh Hashanah service. As Meir recounts in her memoir, My Life (pp. 205–9), she had not been enthusiastic about taking up this post, had believed Soviet Jewry was disconnected from the wider community, and had read in Pravda the sly threat from Ilya Ehrenburg against Jews associating with Israel’s representatives. Yet, on the day, she was met by a euphoric crowd of maybe 50,000 Jews. Ten days later, at the Yom Kippur service, Meir again barely had room to move in the crowd, and when the rabbi recited the closing lines of his service, “Next year in Jerusalem”, “a tremor went through the entire synagogue”, Meir records.
The display of enthusiasm at the return of the Jews to the world of states alarmed the Soviet leadership and was one of the proximate causes of Stalin’s paranoia about Jews in the government. “[B]y January 1949, it was apparent Russian Jewry was going to pay a heavy price for the welcome it had given [Israel’s ambassadors]”, wrote Meir (p. 209), and “the ‘treachery’ [this represented] to Communist ideals”. In Stalin’s view it showed that “bourgeois nationalism” and divided loyalties were active among Soviet Jewry. The Israeli victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six-Day War turbocharged this dynamic. Many remaining intelligence assets sided with Israel after 1967 and the Soviet decision, later regretted, to sever diplomatic relations with Israel severely hampered espionage operations for the remainder of the Cold War.
The main Soviet bridgehead in the region had been in Egypt since 1955. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Cairo became the seat of pan-Arab radicalism, agitating for the elimination of Israel. The Soviets thwarted United Nations condemnation of Nasser’s regime for blocking Israel’s access to the Suez Canal, and when Israel tried to force the issue with the assistance of Britain and France in October 1956 they were halted by the Americans. This hugely bolstered Nasser’s status, which he used — along with American-provided communications equipment — to unleash a wave of revolution that toppled the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, the lynchpin of the pro-Western order, opening the region up in earnest to Soviet influence. Iraq moved into the Soviet orbit and would remain there for the remainder of the Cold War, albeit with considerable ambiguity in the 1980s after Saddam Husayn came to power and started a war with the Iranian theocracy. The Western and Arab desire to prevent the Islamic Republic overrunning Iraq led to them offering support of various kinds, preventing Saddam being solely reliant on the Soviets.
Realising its mistake in trying to come to terms with Nasser after the fall of the Iraqi monarchy, Washington intervened directly, sending troops to shore-up a tottering government in Lebanon, and working in collaboration with the British and the Israelis, who performed a counter-part intervention to secure Jordan. This operation to stem the Egyptian-Soviet tide was just two years after President Eisenhower had halted a British-French-Israeli operation at Suez designed to do the exact same thing.
SYRIA, THE SOVIETS, AND PALESTINIAN TERRORISM
Moscow’s toehold in Egypt was already faltering by the 1960s; it rapidly declined after Nasser’s death in 1970. Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, bravely ordered the Soviet “advisors” out of his country in 1972, with no guarantee Moscow would not repeat the invasion visited on its Czechoslovak satellite just four years earlier when it tried to chart a more independent course. For various reasons the Soviets had to comply. Sadat turned expectantly to the Americans and was met with the Vance-Gromyko Agreement in October 1977, a blueprint for spheres of influence by the Carter administration that would have handed Egypt back to the Soviets. The next month Sadat went to Jerusalem, and President Carter would preside over the signing of the Camp David peace treaty in March 1979, a fait accompli between the Egyptians and Israelis, which brought Egypt fully into the Western camp.
Almost simultaneous with its decline in Egypt, the Soviets were digging in in Syria. After the immediate post-independence shenanigans that saw multiple changes of government in Damascus as a contest between Britain and Iraq on one side, and the French (as well as to some degree the Israelis) on the other was settled in late 1949, Syria began to tilt towards the Soviet Bloc in the mid-1950s under Shukri al-Quwatli. After a (third) abortive U.S. effort to bring down the Syrian government in late 1957, Nasser and the Soviets stepped forth as the saviours of Syrian independence — and promptly unified the country with Egypt as the “United Arab Republic” in February 1958. The UAR broke down in 1961, but the Ba’thist takeover of Syria in 1963 kept Syria in the Soviet column, and the “corrective” coup by Hafez al-Asad in November 1970 cemented in power the Soviets’ most reliable regional ally.
The Hafez regime was the most intransigent when it came to making peace with Israel and the one most addicted to using terrorism in its statecraft. Even after characters such as Ilich Sánchez (Carlos the Jackal) and Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal) became an embarrassment to the East German secret police and other Soviet satellite services, which were so often the means by which Moscow interfaced with the terrorists it supported, they continued to find haven and support from Damascus. In dealing with Turkey over the damming of the Euphrates and the land disputes, Hafez chose to press his case through the terror-insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and was backed by Moscow in doing so since it destabilised a frontline NATO state. It was thus not an outlier that Hafez “negotiated” via terror with Israel.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964 as an Egyptian initiative. The PLO, claiming to represent the Palestinian people, defined its mission as an eliminationist one. The foundation of Israel was “illegal and false”, said the PLO Charter, while rather oddly recognising the British imperial Mandate of Palestine as an “indivisible unit” that would all be liberated. By the time Yasser Arafat took charge of the PLO in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, such unity as it had was long gone, as was the Egyptian domination of the group, and various ultra-radical splinters had emerged, most of them supported by Asad’s Syria.
The prime case of a Syria-backed PLO splinter faction was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), formed in 1967. In 1972, the PFLP’s external actions chief, Wadi Haddad, was ostensibly expelled and set up a new organization from his home in Baghdad, under Saddam’s protection, referred to by some as the Special Operations Group. Haddad continued to claim his terrorist attacks in the name of the PFLP.
Haddad is probably best known as the mastermind of the Entebbe hijacking, one of the most infamous terrorist atrocities against Israelis. Of crucial importance: Haddad was a KGB agent and thus the PFLP functioned as a Soviet proxy.
Perhaps the most infamous atrocity against Israelis, against the athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich in September 1972, also had KGB fingerprints. According to Arafat, the man behind the Munich massacre was Hani al-Hassan, a member of his inner circle, who was a Soviet “asset”. The KGB had also installed a full-fledged agent, Rafat Abu Auon (codename: GIDAR), in al-Hassan’s office to provide additional guidance toward Soviet aims. Arafat never specified al-Hassan’s role, but it is plausible since the group responsible for Munich, Black September, was actually under PLO control, run by another Arafat intimate, Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad). Khalaf, one of the most prolific killers even in the PLO, handled the PLO’s relationship with the KGB and was close to them. Moreover, Khalaf is known to have planned the Munich operation with Mohammad Oudeh (Abu Dawud) and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Arafat’s successor and the current PLO chairman. Abbas, who financed the operation, was also a KGB agent.
Another of Arafat’s deputies, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), led the blood-soaked Western Sector unit within FATAH and was extremely close to the KGB. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a crucial operative at the heart of the PLO, who would lead negotiations with Israel in the 2000s, had been an informant for the KGB. The Soviets were able to call on Nayef Hawatma’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) to, among other things, train the Sandinistas and the PKK. Ahmed Jibril, the formal leader of PFLP after Haddad’s departure — the group now calling itself PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC) — maintained a close relationship with Syrian intelligence and at a minimum would “not carry out any attack the USSR would object to”.
In waging what Jeffrey Herf has called an “undeclared war” against Israel, the Soviet Union was supported by its Warsaw Pact dependencies, none more enthusiastic than the post-Nazi East German state that easily modified its racialist antisemitism into “anti-Zionist” propaganda. It was often the Stasi or other East European intelligence that handled the Palestinian terror groups, providing the KGB a degree of distance and deniability.
The Soviets had always distrusted Arafat, regarding him as deviant, politico-militarily and personally. Nonetheless, they had maintained channels of communication to him, as is clear from the above, and assisted his rise within the PLO. By 1978, with Arafat’s stature rising in the Third World, where the Soviets believed they could win the Cold War, and the collapse of their other Palestinian options, the KGB consolidated its support behind the PLO. For their part, the PLO would serve as a cut-out for the Soviet Union in training and strengthening terrorist movements the world over, from Nicaragua to Afghanistan.
The Soviet aim after that was to build up the PLO to the point that it could sit across from Israel in peace negotiations, and by extension grant the Soviet Union a place at the table as an equal with the United States in a future peace conference. This implicit recognition that Israel could not be destroyed was something the Soviets had little success in convincing the PLO of.
DELEGITIMIZING ISRAEL AND REFUSENIKS
Outside of the shadow war the Soviets helped regional governments and terrorists lead against Israel, Moscow engaged in political warfare, beginning in earnest in the 1970s, to delegitimize the state of Israel by, inter alia, equating Zionism with racism and apartheid. This active measures campaign, like so many others, is still with us today, disseminated earnestly by many who have no idea of its origins. The height of the Soviet success was having the United Nations General Assembly pass a resolution in November 1975 declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”, a verdict roundly denounced by the U.S.’s ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The Soviet political assault on Israel was, to a considerable degree, a continuation of an old problem from Soviet domestic politics: the affinity of Jews for Israel. In the Soviet Union in its last two decades this had an even more concrete aspect: many Soviet Jews were trying to emigrate to Israel. This affronted Moscow in that it was part of a more general “brain drain”, and it was an ideological embarrassment for a state that proclaimed it had moved beyond ethnic distinctions, to a universalistic conception of citizenship, to be confronted with the fact of ethno-religious discrimination in its midst so extreme that its citizens were willing to risk starting their life again in a new country.
Those Jews blocked from emigration by the Soviet government became known as “refuseniks”, and the wrangling over their fate was one of the major political contests of the latter part of the Cold War. The U.S. Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974 that tied human rights — particularly the Jewish emigration — to trade opportunities. As it happened, this backfired: the number of Jews allowed to emigrate declined after this legislation was brought into effect. But the political damage to the Soviet Union was very real, and they knew it. The KGB adopted a schizophrenic policy of cracking down ever-further on Soviet Jewry, and worrying about the impact on the Soviet Union’s reputation abroad.
A fascinating revelation in the Mitrokhin Archive is that in the last few years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, when he was in a dream world of his own, Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief whose institution effectively controlled foreign policy since the 1960s, ran deception operations against the Politburo itself. Some of these had world-historical impacts, such as Andropov’s skewed assessments of an invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that led to a monstrous catastrophe. Smaller but still significant was Andropov telling the Soviet leadership that Jews had sufficient matsos for Passover in order that they support his continued ban on Jews receiving matsos for the seder in parcels from abroad, a practice he regarded as subversive.
To blunt the adverse coverage of the “refusenik” issue, the Soviets conducted a series of active measures designed to tilt the balance. The Brooklyn-based extremist rabbi, Meir Kahane, and the Jewish Defence League (JDL) that he founded, were a goldmine for the Soviets. Kahane’s statements and the JDL’s claims of political violence could be amplified — and, indeed, fabricated. The Mitrokhin Archive records that in July 1971, the KGB planted a bomb in a black section of New York City and then claimed it in the name of the JDL, saying it was revenge for the crimes of “black mongrels”. Antisemitic leaflets were distributed in other areas, as well as documents calling for whites to save America from the predatory Jews. The difference the KGB could make was marginal: the facts remained as they were. But the Soviets did have some success in cultivating British Chief Rabbi Jakobovitz, who came back from a tour of the Soviet Union quite convinced that conditions were not so bad for Jews, a view he couldn’t be dissuaded of even after it became clear that those he met were carefully-trained KGB operatives.
The extraordinary fact, documented by Mitrokhin and Andrew, is that “Zionism was second only to the United States (‘the Main Adversary’) as a target for KGB active measures.” Stalin’s murderous antisemitism died with him, but the antisemitic worldview — repackaged later as “anti-Zionist” — infused the KGB in particular and the Soviet hierarchy in general throughout its entire existence. It was left to Brezhnev, even in his mental decrepitude, to grasp that “Zionism is making us stupid”. It did not stop the problem, however.
After Andropov replaced Brezhnev in 1982, he was utterly convinced President Ronald Reagan was planning a nuclear first strike, and began the expensive Operation RYAN to uncover the details of this non-existent plot. As one would expect, Andropov was quite sure the plan included Zionist collaboration. This hysteria calmed somewhat with Andropov’s death in 1984, but it was well into the Gorbachev era that Jews were allowed into the government, at long last reversing the Stalinist purge. The old guard fought far more tenaciously to avoid lifting the restrictions on Jews than any other group. Mitrokhin and Andrew conclude by noting that the Soviet Union collapsed soon after these restrictions were lifted and many in the KGB analyzed the two events as one and the same: “the triumph of Zionist subversion”.
POST-SOVIET RUSSIA’S THAW WITH ISRAEL
In October 1991, after half-a-century of estrangement, Israel and the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations. Two months later, the Soviet Empire finally perished. Subsequent Israeli perception was that the state was constructing a more fruitful relationship with the new Russian Federation, and certainly when compared with the Soviets this was true. But the old problems remained under the surface: Moscow’s support for rejectionist governments and terrorists. In its new form, the primary problem was the Russians’ ever-closer strategic alliance with Israel’s nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
One aspect that drew Israel and Russia closer was the movement, between 1988 and 1994, of more than 500,000 people to Israel from the areas of the fallen Soviet Union. 200,000 Soviet citizens had managed to make aliya before this and the total would reach a million in the years after, about a quarter of them not Jewish under halachah (Jewish law). This has had a profound effect, strengthening nationalist currents in culture, and creating a connective social tissue — with a seventh of the population now speaking Russian — between Israel and Russia. Over time, both aspects became increasingly important politically, as did the importation of Russian organised crime.
In a paper for the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, Micky Aharonson noted that Russia aligned with Israel through the 1990s in a concern about (Sunni) jihadism, especially as the Chechen war ground on and radicals influenced from the Middle East came to dominate the insurgency. Simultaneously, for both domestic political reasons (since Russia has fifteen-million-plus Muslim inhabitants and 180,000 Jews) and to bolster Moscow’s international image as a superpower mediator, the Russian government has retained a firm position in favour of a Palestinian state.
During the Boris Yeltsin years, relations were rocky: initially rather strong as Yeltsin sought to curry favour with the Americans, they were significantly diminished by 1996 as the influence of ultranationalists and Communists inside Russia peaked. The NATO intervention in Bosnia in August 1995, against the Russian-aligned Serbs, had not helped this mood; to the extent Israel was associated with the West, it was impacted by these policies, despite Israel itself tilting to the Serbs’ side.
Though there were these difficulties, relations were sustained throughout by expanding economic ties and diplomatic interest. Russia regarded Israel as an indirect path to the White House during strained periods with the Americans and as an arena in which Yeltsin could claim to demonstrate international credentials. Israel wanted the continued flow of skilled immigration from Russia, plus certain natural resources, and hoped that Moscow could act to modulate its erstwhile allies, especially Syria.
These elements of the relationship established between Israel and Russia after the Cold War have remained fairly constant. Between 2003 and 2008, Israeli exports to Russia quadrupled, covering key areas like nanotechnology, energy, and military hardware, while Russian investment increased significantly in Israeli infrastructure. The fact that Israel’s technology sector is so advanced, gives it a certain parity in such relations, says Aharonson. At a political level, Russia continues to see Israel as a bridge to the West; the other side of this equation is that relations are heavily influenced by considerations of U.S. interest. Aharonson adds that Israel, on its part, does not automatically join Western condemnations of Russian malign behaviour. This not only applies on Russia’s “near abroad”, but, as the vague statement in March 2018 about the nerve agent attack in Britain showed, much further afield.
The second half of the 1990s were frosty after Yeltsin bowed to internal pressures, appointing as Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister Yevgeniy Primakov, a known ally of Moscow’s Cold War Arab clients.
THE RETURN OF THE OLD ORDER
Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister in September 1999 and then, on the back of those mysterious apartment bombings and the resumption of hostilities in Chechnya, president in March 2000. “No previous head of state in Russia, or perhaps anywhere else in the world, has ever surrounded himself with so many former intelligence officers”, Mitrokhin and Andrew note (p. 490). Putin takes considerable interest in, and has a considerable understanding of, intelligence matters, and “has more direct control of intelligence than any Russian leader since Stalin”.
This is not to say that things are exactly the same in the Kremlin as in the Cold War; they are not. Though the old security apparatus has seized back power, Putin himself seems to have left the antisemitic aspect of the ancien regime behind. Indeed, the hardcore nationalists and neo-Nazis in Russia share the view of the Ukrainian commander of the Azov Battalion, who told The Guardian, “Putin’s not even a Russian. Putin’s a Jew.” (Such rumours were also spread about Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s placeholder between 2008 and 2012). In truth, Putin runs a state policy considerably less indulgent to racialism and antisemitism than the general population.
That said, Putin is surrounded by a class of people, and is reliant on instruments of power, from the clergy to the siloviki, where antisemitism is less attenuated. As mentioned above, most of the KGB believed the Soviet downfall was the result of a Zionist conspiracy. Just as the disproportionate numbers of Jews among the early Bolsheviks, especially in the security agencies, gave a superficial plausibility to the “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy theory, in the 1990s the over-representation of Jews among the post-Soviet oligarchs fed the sense in the enfeebled barons of the fallen order that “the Jews sold out Russia”, a frequent refrain at Lubyanka in the Yeltsin years, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write in The New Nobility.
The cohort currently in power in Moscow comes from the most Sovietized layer of the Russian population, as Ekaterina Schulmann explained in a lecture at King’s College in early October. Born in the 1950s, this demographic grew up with the Communists in total control in a way they had not been before: indoctrinated in the schools, most of the people who had known a different world, under the Tsar, were dead, so could provide no mitigation; even the landscape of the old world had been destroyed by the war. This was a laboratory in which the purest Homo Sovieticus was nurtured; the generation beyond this was brought up as the ideological foundations slipped. Putin’s set were in their 40s when the wall came down and lived through the 1990s, concluding that the demise of the Soviet Union had been a disaster — and, for them, in terms of wealth and status, it had been.
The interesting part, Schulmann pointed out, is that the Kremlin’s ultra-Sovietized leadership thinks of itself as just simple Russians like all others. They live in an environment where this illusion is a social norm, and because of their power they inspire emulation from their juniors, reinforcing the idea that their worldview is the norm. The crucial aspect about this worldview is not the antisemitism per se, even as it can’t be ignored as a factor. It is that the worldview the Russian leadership is socialized into is one where the U.S. remains the Main Adversary, constantly conspiring to undermine and ultimately destroy Russia. Israel — the impress of the American-led West in the Middle East — is related to by the Kremlin through that prism.
Given this, it is perhaps surprising that Putin came into office determined to improve relations with Israel. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Russia became rhetorically supportive of Israel, tying its own war in Chechnya to the then-ongoing Second Intifada and the American-led action against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who formed a close personal bond with Putin, returned the rhetoric, saying Israel should have acted in Lebanon as the Russians did in Chechnya. In 2005, Putin became the first serving Russian head of state to visit Israel.
Yet, Moscow never went all-in for Israel and things started to fray quickly. Differences were already showing by the time Sharon went to Moscow in September 2003. Russia had opposed the Bush administration’s view, supported by Israel, that Arafat had to be removed before there could be peace, and Russia-Israel relations deteriorated further in 2004. Russia voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution in March 2004 condemning Israel for killing HAMAS founder Ahmed Yassin, voted in favour of another resolution in June condemning the separation fence with the West Bank, and another that October demanding Israel cease anti-terrorist operations in Gaza, which were designed to provide security as Israel withdrew its occupation forces.
In March 2006, Putin invited the leadership of HAMAS, a group Russia does not consider terrorist, to Moscow, and since then these visits have become more frequent. Indeed, HAMAS’s leadership made a visit to Moscow in November this year after the Treasury sanctions had exposed the mechanism by which the Kremlin assists in funding HAMAS. Russia has offered consistent political support for other Palestinian terrorist factions. Putin’s regime first supported (and then opposed) the U.N. Goldstone Report on the 2008–09 Gaza war that was so biased against Israel its own lead author repudiated it. By 2011, Russia had, despite being a member of the Quartet that was supposed to negotiate peace, indicated support for a resolution that would have declared a Palestinian state unilaterally.
Even as Russia became progressively more diplomatically hostile to Israel in the mid-2000s, the ruling administrations established party-to-party relations and visa-free travel from Russia to Israel. This pattern goes back to the beginning of the post-Soviet era. In early 1995, at a time when Russia was working to improve relations with Israel, Moscow signed, with no significant negative response from Israel, a billion-dollar deal with Iran to build four nuclear reactors in a country that even at that time was widely suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons. The only pushback came two years later when Israel briefly paused a gas deal — after Russia supplied additional military technology to Iran.
RUSSIA’S STRATEGIC RELATIONSHIP WITH IRAN
The striking, perhaps unique, aspect of the Israel-Russian relationship is that Israel continues to draw closer, despite Russian actions that flatly contradict its core interests. Russia’s burgeoning strategic alliance with the theocratic government in Iran is the crucial aspect, and within that there are two key elements: Iran’s nuclear program and the its regional expansion, specifically the supply of strategic resources to the Lebanese branch of the Iranian revolution, Hizballah.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s relations with Iran were strained. In 1959, the Shah signed a secret security agreement with Israel; for the next twenty years, Iran was Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world and a pillar of Western influence in the region. The Soviets, naturally, tried to disrupt this and other pillars that underpinned the Western security architecture in the region. The Mitrokhin Archive discloses an attempt by the KGB to assassinate the Shah in 1962, one of the last such operations, and thereafter the KGB put considerable resources into active measures to destabilise the Shah’s regime, both disseminating fabricated stories to stir up suspicion between the Iranian ruler and the U.S., and preparations for kinetic sabotage. The Soviets lost much of their network in Iran after the defection of Oleg Lyalin in 1971, Mitrokhin records, and the Shah’s security forces were very effective in blocking the KGB’s access to the country through diplomatic channels.
Like the CIA, the KGB was blindsided by the Shah’s downfall in January 1979, and hardly more pleased with the result. “The Tehran residency remained resolutely hostile to [the new dictator, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini”, Mitrokhin and Andrew note, though it did find one thing about the new circumstances more favourable: Khomeini was even more paranoid than the Shah, and with the swirl of American documents around Tehran, plundered from the Embassy, it was easy for the KGB to get credible fabrications into the right places. KGB active measures portraying the first president of the Islamic Republic, Abolhassan Banisadr, as a CIA agent probably helped lead to his removal in June 1981, and similar active measures against Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, one of Khomeini’s closest associates, triggered his removal as Foreign Minister in August 1980 and almost certainly helped secure his appointment with a firing squad two years later.
The West tried to calm Lebanon’s civil war and subsequently became a victim of Hizballah, Iran’s long arm in the Levant, through a series of bombings and endless kidnappings in the 1980s. In September 1985, Hizballah turned on the Soviet Union, murdering one Soviet diplomat, Arkady Katkov, and kidnapping three more. In response, the KGB sent the severed genitals of one of the kidnappers relatives to him in a box, and shot their captive in the head. Hizballah released the remaining three diplomats and never again harmed Soviet citizens in Lebanon.
The Soviets declared themselves neutral in the Iran-Iraq war and cut off all contracts with Saddam. Once Saddam dropped his rhetorical opposition to the Red Army’s conquest of Afghanistan — and the Iranians turned the tide in 1982, forcing the Iraqis onto their own territory — Moscow relented, ceasing support to Iraqi Kurds and resuming large-scale weapons supplies to Baghdad. The prospect of a victorious Islamist revolutionary regime inciting the Muslim populations of Central Asia to revolt was too much for the Centre to risk, Mitrokhin discloses, though the Soviets were not willing to supply Saddam at levels that would enable his victory.
The end of the Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini, and the Soviet Union, plus Saddam’s becoming a liability after his aggression against Kuwait, paved the way for Moscow and Iran to find a warmer relationship by 1990. As the 1990s wore on, the Russians increasingly saw Sunni jihadists as the problem and Shi’ism, even in a militant form, since it was constituted in a state power, as a potential counter-weight. It was in this period that Russia began extending assistance to Iran’s nascent nuclear program.
The U.S. exempted Moscow from the sanctions on Iran to allow arms sales, and this emboldened Russia to ignore all other restrictions, beginning a transfer of missile and nuclear technology. Russia has used its diplomatic position to shield Iran’s missile program, at home and abroad, when those missiles are transferred to proxies such as the Huthis in Yemen.
In an ideal world, Russia would prefer Iran not have nuclear weapons, but Moscow is also confident that such weapons would not pose a threat to its sovereignty — and might indeed provide it with advantages in its main strategic goal of undermining the American global position. As an ally-cum-patron of Iran’s, regional states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. beyond that, would have to treat with Russia as an intermediary. As so often, turmoil would provide Russia an opportunity. Hence, Russia’s willingness, time after time down to the present, to defend Iran’s nuclear program from international pressure, and to physically defend the program by transferring an S-300 anti-aircraft system.
Iran’s proxies in the region cause the most immediate trouble to Israel, and Russia not only protests Israel’s efforts to constrain these groups, but actively supports them, including the most powerful of them, Lebanese Hizballah.
When Russia released its list of recognized terrorist groups in July 2006, it notably did not include Hizballah (nor HAMAS). At this time, the U.S. was well-aware that Iran was using Hizballah to support Shi’a militias in Iraq that were killing American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. It was also perfectly clear that Hizballah was liquidating opponents of Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon, whittling down the “cedar revolution” that it would ultimately reverse. All the while, Russia provided political backing for Hizballah as it went about this grim business.
The trendline can be seen in Russia’s different reactions during Israeli-Hizballah conflicts a decade apart. When Israel reacted seriously to Hizballah for the first time, with Operation GRAPES OF WRATH in April 1996, Russia had been relatively even-handed, even as it ultimately condemned Israel. In 2006, Russia not only immediately condemned Israel’s “disproportionate use of force”, but joined in on Hizballah’s side. The Russians provided intelligence to Hizballah from listening posts it jointly manned with Iran on the Golan Heights. Advanced anti-tank weapons Russia supplied to Syria were passed to Hizballah. This “leakage” was not accidental: using Syria as a cut-out to terrorist groups, notably the PKK, was standard Moscow policy for decades.
RUSSIA’S INTERVENTION IN SYRIA
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded in July 2015 between Iran and world powers, the Permanent Five of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union. The JCPOA ostensibly stripped Iran of a nuclear-weapons capacity in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal, in fact, failed as an arms control accord, though that was hardly its primary purpose. By this point, the Iran-Russia axis had already made considerable inroads against American influence, and it was just about to move to solidify its alliance structure and enforce a new order across the northern Middle East.
Iran’s involvement in the campaign by Bashar al-Asad’s regime to crush the uprising against its outbreak in 2011, with Hizballah snipers cutting down peaceful demonstrators. In the summer and autumn of 2012, with Asad struggling, under attack in his own capital and the rebellion having overtaken the largest city, Aleppo, Iran began to move its Shi’a jihadists into Syria to bolster the regime. Asad’s woes continued into early 2013 and his downfall seemed like a matter of time. Yet his regime had largely been stabilised by the middle of the year. The key factor in turning the tide was, as Phillip Smyth has so extensively documented, Iran orchestrating a full-fledged international Shi’a jihad, flooding Khomeini’ist militants into Syria, preventing Asad’s battered regime from collapsing, and virtually capturing its security structures in the process.
Russia, meanwhile, was providing weapons, intelligence, propaganda support, and diplomatic protection to the Asad regime. There were repeated efforts under the Obama administration to work with Russia to reduce the violence and find a settlement; all of them failed because Russia’s mission was to secure and rehabilitate its client regime, working in lock-step with Iran.
The Iranian and Russian assistance proved not to be enough, however. By early 2015, Asad was losing ground again. To reverse this trend, immediately after the signing of the JCPOA, the leader of Iran’s foreign terrorist apparatus, Qassem Sulaymani, journeyed to Moscow — in violation of a global travel ban — to plan a joint Iran-Russia intervention. In September 2015, with the insurgency at the gates of areas in the regime’s heartland, Russia stepped in directly with an aerial campaign to rescue Asad for a second time.
Moscow’s effort to militarily and politically salvage Asad’s crumbling regime meant systematically targeting the mainstream rebels supported by the West, trying to leave only al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) as opponents to the regime. Only once the moderate rebels had been crushed at Aleppo in December 2016 did the pro-Asad forces turn on the jihadists in a serious way — and even then it was mostly to capture the ISIS-occupied territory in the east before the West’s partners did.
To complement the Russian bombing, Iran stepped up the involvement of its Shi’a International. Hizballah, the oldest and truest offspring of the Iranian regime, has spearheaded the Iranian intervention in Syria, creating “Islamic revolutionary” clones of itself from among Syrians and foreigners, and providing them with military and ideological training, logistics, weapons, and command. Russia has worked directly with Hizballah, training its terrorists in surveillance, reconnaissance, and special operations tactics, as well as providing invaluable air support. Russian special and other forces, who have complete contempt for Asad’s army, fight alongside Hizballah, whom they admire as “blood brothers”. Moscow is also providing heavy weapons to Hizballah, according to none other than Hizballah. That Hizballah is believed to be tied into Syria’s weapons of mass destruction program — an extension of the Iranian WMD program, itself a derivative of North Korea’s — does not appear to concern the Russians, nor Hizballah’s global criminality that stretches all the way to the borders of the U.S. “homeland”.
ISRAEL’S FLAWED STRATEGY WITH RUSSIA IN SYRIA
The Israeli approach in Syria has been rooted in its handling of Russia for two decades before that: trying to work with Russia, while separating out the Iran issue. This was always rather fanciful, given the emphasis the doctrine of the ruling regime in Iran places on Israel’s destruction, and the consummation of the Russian-Iranian alliance structure in the northern Middle East. But it was not only Israel that was tantalised by the delusion of serious operational daylight between Iran and Russia. The Obama administration was repeatedly drawn in by this prospect.
The argument, roughly, was that Russia was in Syria as an act of Great Power prestige, a demonstration that the post-Soviet international decline was over. Russia’s interests included securing the old naval base at Tartus and the new airbase at Hmaymeem, while preserving its ally in Damascus. Russia would have demonstrated to autocrats region-wide the benefit of an alliance with Moscow, which stands firm by its allies no matter what. Not coincidentally, the Russians had used Syria to test and advertise various new weapons systems that could be sold to this additional dictatorial clientele. Given these rather narrow, material interests, so the argument went, and the disruption to them if an Israeli-Iranian war broke out on Syrian territory, Moscow could be, if not separated from Tehran then used to rein it in, since the Iranians’ grander, ideological ambitions in Syria will ultimately undermine Russia’s own interests. All it required to sustain this fantasy was to believe that the Russians were able and willing to side with the West over Iran.
The Russian air support was vital to the pro-Asad forces on the ground being able to advance, but how this fact morphed into the (literally) fantastic belief that Moscow could exert serious influence on events in Syria — something taken near-ubiquitously in commentary, analysis, and policy circles as an axiom until very recently — is one of the great mysteries of recent times. Perhaps it is a testament to the power of wish-thinking, since it permitted the argument to be made that if the United States and her allies wanted to contain and/or ultimately expel the Iranian theocracy from Syria, it could be done by teaming up with the Russians. This was a much cheaper option than any serious effort to block Iranian expansionism on the ground, where it matters. And it fit nicely with the U.S. administration’s complete indifference to Asad: it could now be pretended that Iran’s influence in Syria could be diminished while Asad remains in power — albeit at the expense of bolstering the Russians.
Capacity aside, there was never any reason to believe, as U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton put it in August, that “Russia’s objective is to get Iran” out of Syria, and not only because this was a month after the Russians said they couldn’t do it. Moscow doesn’t “have the same interest as Iran in Syria”, Bolton added. The Israelis, too, have repeatedly spoken as if they have an understanding with Moscow to protect core interests in Syria. The Israelis have struck at Iranian targets in Syria hundreds of times since 2013, first to prevent the shipment of advanced weapons to Hizballah and latterly to prevent Iran establishing a presence in Syria akin to that it has in Lebanon through Hizballah. Jerusalem seemed to credit Russia with permitting these strikes, rather than simply being unable to prevent them. Both aspects of this — that Russia’s wants Iran to leave Syria and Israel’s room for manoeuvre — are dubious.
Russia’s central goal in Syria is to stabilise the Asad regime, and it is unwilling to put significant numbers of its own troops into Syria to do it. Thus, Russia’s whole position in Syria rests on Iran. So far from being able to empower one element of the pro-Asad coalition against the others, empowering any one part of the interdependent tri-ped empowers the whole structure — and vice versa, weakening any one would weaken the whole thing. In this sense, with Iran the driving force of events in the Levant, Moscow is once again party to an undeclared war against Israel.
Under the protection of Russia, Israel’s autonomy is being restricted. Iran is entrenching on three borders — through Hizballah in Lebanon, HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza, and its various Shi’a militias in Syria — as part of its phased effort to destroy Israel by making life in the state unbearable. A specific component of this has been the build-up of a vast, increasingly-accurate missile arsenal across all fronts that can menace all of Israel’s key infrastructure and population centres. Yet Israel seemed to believe it had no choice but to go on trusting Russia to do something about this.
The notion that Moscow was in any way safeguarding Israeli interests in Syria should have been realised to be a fallacy in July 2018, at the latest, when Russia managed to neutralise Israel as a force laced with Iranian terrorists took over Deraa in southern Syria, on Israel’s northern border. Deraa’s fall was also the hinge moment when it became clear that for all of the rhetoric of the Trump administration against Iran, they really did not have the stomach to contest matters with the Islamic Republic where it truly counted. While Israel has the power to attempt to shape its own terms in these circumstances, for Jordan, a weak and dependent state, unable to fight the pro-Asad forces on its own and frightened of being overwhelmed with refugees, there was no choice but to accede to the Asadist reality, another hindrance to forming a serious anti-Iran policy.
As the pro-Asad offensive began into Deraa, and Russia joined the fray with its airstrikes, Moscow was stringing Jerusalem along with a diplomatic process that promised to keep Iranian militias away from Israel’s border. It had been previously reported that Iranian troops were being disguised as “regular” Syrian army troops, and soon even that façade gave way. It was plain for all to see that Iran’s forces were advancing towards Israel with Russian air cover. Israel gave up its rebel assets, the buffer for itself and Jordan against IRGC and its means of influencing events in Syria, and Hizballah has now annexed these rebels into its force.
In the midst of the Deraa offensive, as Russia was assuring Israel that it would limit Iran’s influence, Israel had to deploy its David’s Sling interceptor system for the first time to shoot down a Syrian jet that attacked its territory from the Iranian-dominated T-4 base, almost certainly with some degree of Russian complicity.
Perhaps because Israel had now surrendered its leverage inside Syria, Jerusalem if anything doubled-down on the Russia track after Deraa. Moscow announced on 1 August that it had pulled the Iranians back fifty miles from the Israeli border, and the day after said Russian military police would patrol the Golan. The Israeli defence minister presented an optimistic picture of the situation, attributing to Asad agency he does not have. But Iran had not moved out of the border area — the Russians had simply lied about this. Whatever reduction in “the scale of [the Iranians’] activity in Syria” the Israelis were detecting by the end of the month is better described as consolidation: Iran formalised its presence and control over vast sectors of the Syrian state with a defence pact on 27 August.
A minor miracle occurred in Syria on 18 September: after decades of futility, Asad’s air defence systems brought down an aircraft — one belonging to its Russian ally, killing fifteen people. Moscow responded hysterically, blaming Israel and (re)announcing the delivery of an ostensibly-advanced S-300 to Syria that could, in theory, put Iranian weapons shipments to Hizballah out of reach of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), a direct violation of the tacit accord the Israelis believed they had with the Kremlin.
Israel’s counter-response was to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declare that he will meet Vladimir Putin, with some notion being voiced of the Russian ruler acting as a mediator with Iran. This political victory for the Russians had no evident benefit to the Israelis: Israel does not lack for channels to the Iranians and Moscow had conceded by then it had no ability, even if it had the will, to help Israel achieve its goals. The meeting was scheduled for 11 November on the side-lines of the armistice commemorations for the Great War; the meeting was said to be cancelled, to avoid politicising such a solemn event, and then went ahead anyway. Netanyahu said the meeting could be described as “very important”, but he did not elaborate.
Since October, as the Institute for the Study of War has explained in detail, the Russian government has thickened a network of overlapping air defences in Syria; how operational they are is unclear, but NATO cannot be unconcerned about such a development on its doorstep and they seem to have played a part in deterring Israel. Back in September, the Russians had also vowed to jam Israeli radar and satellite systems, complicating the IAF’s ability to attack Iranian targets in Syria. According to Israeli officials, this electronic warfare has occurred. There has been a precipitate decline in the tempo of Israeli air raids into Syria concurrent with these actions by Moscow: the only confirmed Israeli strike since the September fiasco was on 29 November. One reason Israelis have given for this period of abstinence is that the 10 February and particularly the 9 May round of strikes did so much damage to Iran’s position — destroying “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, according to the defence minister — that they removed the urgency for continued action.
This is almost certainly a rationalisation. It is true that Iran appears to have escalated its activity in Lebanon and Iraq, where missiles capable of hitting Israel have been deposited. But there is no indication this is at the expense of Syria. For example, even as Iran keeps its options for escalation against Israel open in Syria, it is diverting civilian airliners loaded with weapons from Syria to Beirut — in order to feed them back into Syria, without the risk of Israeli airstrikes. As well as the obvious nonsense this makes of Lebanese sovereignty, it reinforces the trend of IRGC creating an integrated two-front threat to Israel from the north. The beginning of the anti-tunnels Operation NORTHERN SHIELD last week points to a revival of concern about southern Lebanon in Israel. Jerusalem has tacitly declared Lebanon off-limits during the time of the Syrian war and the U.S. has committed to the country’s “stability” — despite it functioning as IRGC’s operation headquarters, that is to say a source of instability for the entire area. Bizarrely, even at this late stage, some in Israel believe they detect the hand of Russian benevolence, attributing the change in flight patterns — a factor making Jerusalem’s options more limited and costly — to Moscow’s efforts to curb Iranian misbehaviour.
Netanyahu’s testimony to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on 19 November, to the effect that Russia cannot remove Iran from Syria, and the U.S. Treasury sanctions the next day, showing how Russia helping Iran support Asad, as well as HAMAS and Hizballah, terrorist groups with openly exterminationist policy toward Israel, should have settled this issue. But the Russians themselves admitting that this was the case in July did not stop people arguing the contrary for months afterward, and Netanyahu then went on to give an upbeat, if unspecific, assessment of Russia’s role in Syria and his engagement with Putin in November.
The reality is quite different. Whether Russia is truly angry about the downing of its spy plane in September “or is just exploiting it to dictate new strategic rules in the north, the result is the same”, as Amos Harel wrote. Moscow’s priority is to stabilise the Asad tyranny, an interest that radically conflicts with Israel’s interest in preventing Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, since the regime only still stands because of Iranian troops and IRGC-controlled Shi’a militias. With Iran digging in all around Israel, and Moscow offering protection — perhaps soon in Lebanon — the “problem Israel faces in the north, in a nutshell, is the real danger that its operational window of opportunity is closing”, Harel concludes.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Eliminating Iran’s influence in Syria entirely is impossible; even under some unimaginable scenario where Iran withdrew all military assets, its intelligence and societal elements would remain. Iran has been in Syria for a long time. IRGC ran the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia out of its Embassy in Damascus, for example, and Iran-backed Shi’a proselytism in eastern Syria and elsewhere had affected Christians and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, long before the war. The demographic shifts orchestrated by Iran and the creation of organic militia elements like Liwa al-Baqir mean Tehran is in the Levant to stay.
What Israel can try to do is keep Iran’s project off-balance, enforce red lines on the development and transfer of certain weapons, and prevent the normalisation of Iran’s presence and the low-intensity warfare that we have seen in Syria. Iran gains ideologically from this state of controlled hostility, and the long-term trendline is in Tehran’s favour, surrounding Israel with rooted proxies and restricting the Jewish state’s freedom of action. The U.S. could make a meaningful difference, but it would require the U.S. to shift its policy, away from having “one mission” — the defeat of ISIS — and towards a meaningful counter-Iran strategy, specifically finding a viable method of unseating Asad, the sine qua non of any effort to diminish Iranian power in the region. In the meantime, it means resisting Moscow’s efforts to redraw the terms of engagement.
There is now a growing consensus when speaking to Israelis that the Russians are playing a negative role in Syria vis-à-vis Iran, even if the Israelis tend to see this as a recent shift. One suspects that the struggle to this point, in Washington and Jerusalem, to accept that there is no Russian shortcut to containing, let alone evicting, Iran from Syria, is a case of the wish being father to the thought: without that path, the options start to look more costly — economically, politically, and militarily. Fortunately, the Russian presence is only a meaningful impediment if others choose to treat it as such.
The precedents are there. In July 1970, Israel sprang a trap on the Soviet Union, a far more powerful entity than modern-day Russia, in the Sinai and shot down five of its fighter jets in three minutes. The result was to secure Israel’s freedom of movement and to further discredit a disintegrating Soviet position in Egypt. More famously, in June 1982, Israel got into a “dogfight” over Lebanon with Syria’s Soviet-made anti-aircraft systems and air force. Israel suffered damage to two planes, while obliterating Asad’s air-defence network and taking down more than eighty Syrian jets. Israel has always served as a demonstration of the superiority of Western ways, and this was such a potent example that even the Soviets finally got the message and began the foredoomed path to perestroika.
In Syria at the present time, Israel and the U.S. have always had much more room to move than they let on. Trump’s strikes at the regime over chemical weapons and the killing of 200 Russian mercenaries in February attest to this. The Kremlin did not attempt interfere with, or retaliate for, the strikes against Asad, despite Trump taunting Moscow directly in advance. The Russians simply disowned the mercenaries to avoid the moral-political necessity of a response. A tweet from Trump in September seems to have played an important part in halting a then-impending offensive by the pro-Asad coalition into Idlib. Likewise, with Israel’s aerial campaign. The belief that Moscow had any role in permitting this is distorting, as is the needless worry over the S-300. Israel promised in 2013, when this matter was first raised, to prevent such a system becoming operational, and reiterated recently that it would evade or destroy the system if delivered to Syria. Jerusalem should adhere to this position. If Russia wishes to retain the image of control it has built, it will not challenge Israel in the skies over Syria or provoke the Israelis into making good on their threats to topple Asad’s regime.
Israel’s tilt toward Russia is understandable and a great deal of the responsibility lies with the United States. The Americans under Obama led in this direction, viewing Russia’s intervention in Syria positively, as a means of getting to a durable settlement, and even signed onto a military pact to target Asad’s enemies. To this day the U.S. continues down a diplomatic path that can only lead to triumph for the Russia-Iran-Asad coalition. Nearly all of the U.S.’s militarily-minor allies have made peace with the Russia-Iran axis — Egypt, Jordan, and increasingly the smaller Gulf states — and the U.S.’s key allies, Saudi Arabia and above all Turkey, have tested this route, too.
In many ways Israel’s predicament is analogous to Turkey’s. Both states border the Syrian hecatomb and have had their immediate strategic interests neglected or actually threatened by American policy; both have explored whether they can work through Russia to meet some minimal needs. Both are destined to be disappointed. Moscow’s objectives stand in opposition to their interests, and this malevolent intent is combined with a high degree of impotence; creating the impression that it is the central player by forging links with all sides and playing spoiler is the extent of the Kremlin’s capacity in Syria. But without American leadership, the further fragmentation of the Western alliance structure and its replacement in the northern Middle East by the Russian-Iranian axis seems inevitable.
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 In August 2011, Russia’s then-Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met in Damascus not only with HAMAS’s political leader, Khaled Meshal; he met Moscow’s old friends from the DFLP and PFLP-GC, Nayef Hawatma and Talal Naji, respectively; and Maher al-Taher of the other PFLP branch.
Al-Taher, who became PFLP leader in 2001, was most recently in the news for having accompanied British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to an October 2014 ceremony in Tunisia to lay a wreath for the Black September killers — a month before PFLP slaughtered four rabbis in Jerusalem. Moscow had placed “particular emphasis on … inter-Palestinian accord” at this meeting, in the belief that uniting these terrorists would help towards “the creation of an independent Palestinian state”, according to the Foreign Ministry.
On it has gone. In March 2015, when the PFLP deputy Abu Ahmad Fuad was in Moscow, along with Al-Taher, speaking about launching a “third intifada”, Bogdanov indicted his support. Fuad, Al-Taher, and Bogdanov met again in November 2017 to discuss “Palestinian national unity” and their support for Asad. Al-Taher is given free rein in Russian state media. Hawatma had been in Moscow months earlier to flaunt his coordination with the Kremlin and to warn about the “Jewish-Russian Zionist lobby”.
The Russian “offer” last month to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians is, at best, an effort to snub Trump’s search for “the deal of the century”, and, at worst, it is an attempt to extend its influence into yet another area of the Middle East against a Western ally.
 Iran’s role came into the open in Syria no later than the intrusion of Hizballah at Qusayr in mid-2013, which triggered, in tandem with the massive chemical weapons attack in Ghuta that August, a serious escalation in sectarianism. The armed opposition adopted various strategies to cope with this dynamic and prevent the loss of its soldiers to the jihadist insurgents, notably appropriating their rhetoric. By early 2014, the trend reversed and the rebellion went to war with the Islamic State.
 As Tony Badran has written — see here and here — the seeds of Hizballah were sown in Lebanon before the foundation of the Islamic Republic in Iran. It was in the struggle over the leadership of the Shi’is in Lebanon that the cadres who later became Hizballah were born, and it was in Lebanon that this radical trend showed its ability to liquidate those who stood in its way — even on its “own” side, notoriously working with the PLO and Muammar al-Qaddafi to murder Imam Musa al-Sadr, a determined opponent of the Khomeini faction.
This triangle — Khomeini and the proto-Hizballah in Lebanon, the PLO, and Qaddafi — was to prove instrumental in the downfall of the Shah. They all wanted, for their own reasons, to topple the strongest ally of America and Israel in the region. In his book The Fall of Heaven, Andrew Scott Cooper notes the two primary terrorist groups operating against the Shah in the late 1970s, the Communist “urban guerrillas” of the Fedayeen-e-Khalq and the Marxist-inflected, Khomeini-aligned Islamists of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK). Both received support from Qaddafi and Palestinian terrorists.
The Fedayeen were trained at camps run by George Habash’s PFLP in Libya, in Oman, and in South Yemen, Cooper reports, and “were … supplied by Communist regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany.” The Fedayeen had “close ties to an assortment of international terrorist groups”, including the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Irish Republican Army. In the aftermath of Khomeini’s triumph, the bulk of the Fedayeen sided with the new regime — only to be purged and crushed in the mid-1980s, once they had provided cover for the Islamists to do away with the rest of the Left that had assisted in the revolution.
“Khomeini had forged a tactical alliance” with MEK in 1972, Cooper documents. After training at PLO camps in Lebanon and Syria, and with Habash in Libya, MEK operatives “slipped back into Iran”. MEK received money from Khomeini, passed to operatives in Najaf, and at least some of that came from Qaddafi, especially in the lead-up to the revolution. It was a sanguinary provocation by PLO-trained MEK cadres in September 1978 that ratified for the Shah his decision, made days earlier, to leave as soon as he could. The Shah flew out of Tehran on 16 January 1979. MEK was purged in 1981 and appeared at a dead-end, but it has gained something like a second life recently thanks to some gullible Westerners.
 Hizballah, the leading edge for Iran globally, engages in a vast array of revenue-generating criminal enterprises, particularly in Latin America, and it is notable that Russia’s return to the Western Hemisphere — in Cuba, Nicaragua, and notably in Venezuela — overlaps considerably with the Iran/Hizballah position.
 A parallel fantasy has been mooted by some: strengthening the Asad regime itself as the means of thwarting Iran’s designs in the Levant. The reality is that the pro-Asad forces are in tatters, barely able to hold together a network of gangsters and sectarian warlords that compete with one-another for resources and rents, a patchwork system we politely call “the regime”. Any offensive capability left to the regime is provided by Iran, which has followed a time-tested script in capturing what passes for state institutions in Syria.
(As an aside, there is a recent case, in Yemen, where the fallen ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, tried to do what so many in the West have hoped for in Syria, namely tilt to the Russians as a means of decreasing Iranian influence. When Saleh was murdered by his Iranian-backed Huthi allies in December 2017, it was, according to some involved in the conflict, at the direct instructions of Qassem Sulaymani and was intended precisely to shut down this idea of a “Russia option”, i.e. settling matters in Yemen on terms other than Tehran’s.)
Of Asad’s militias that ostensibly retain some “independent” capacity, most notoriously Quwwat al-Nimr (The Tiger Forces) led Suhayl al-Hassan, it only restates the problem. Al-Hassan’s forces are propped up by foreigners, and the man himself is under U.S. sanctions for his role in using “barrel bombs” against civilians, among other things. Al-Hassan was known to trade with ISIS, undermining the regime’s war effort, but enriching his militia and enhancing his power.
If the West was going to ‘empower Asad out of his dependence on Iran’, one fundamental aspect of this would presumably be providing him an independent revenue stream. Any money the West fed into nominally-Asad-held areas of Syria would, if it wasn’t taken directly by Iran, be syphoned off by al-Hassan and his likes, reinforcing the most corrupt and cruel elements in the country; subsidise the regime’s crimes against humanity, past and future; and produce neither ‘stabilisation’ nor ‘reconstruction’.
As Fred Hof, the former State Department lead on Syria once put it, “Those who counsel cooperation with Assad should think things through very, very carefully with their own reputations in mind.”
 There is some controversy over Iran’s relationship with HAMAS. Of late, Israelis have sought to distinguish PIJ, an Iranian “proxy”, from HAMAS, which is said to be less an Iranian creature. For example, Jerusalem said of a PIJ rocket attack in late October, “Islamic Jihad did not wait to get a green light from HAMAS”, instead taking its instructions direct from Iran. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a ceasefire with HAMAS that nearly toppled his government in mid-November, and has allowed the payment of millions of dollars from Qatar to HAMAS. The playing down of HAMAS’s reliance on Iran appears be part of the messaging around a strategy that, while prodding Qatar and Turkey to increase their influence with HAMAS, has apparently accepted HAMAS as the least-worst option for Gaza — the others being to militarily topple HAMAS, then either leave, producing chaos that might help Iran (and ISIS), or stay, and get mired in a political and diplomatic crisis.
While the politics of the Israeli posture are understandable, analytically it is a different matter. In May 2018, HAMAS spokesman Yahya Sinwar, appearing on Hizballah’s Al-Mayadeen television channel, spoke of the “almost daily” contact his organisation has with Hizballah, the “strong, powerful and warm” ties HAMAS has with Qassem Sulaymani, and the extent of the “capabilities” HAMAS had been able to build up thanks to “a lot of money, equipment and expertise” provided by Tehran. The next month it was revealed that Israel had detected the movement of HAMAS militants into Hizballah-controlled areas of Lebanon for training and the construction of missiles — a scheme arranged by Iran. The U.S. sanctions in November documented the transfer of millions of dollars from Iran, through Hizballah and Asad’s central bank, to HAMAS. The U.S. was, after these sanctions, “in a position to really go after all the revenue streams Iran uses to fund HAMAS”, said Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran. In sum, there is a degree of uncertainty about the exact extent of Iran’s influence over HAMAS, and little doubt that it is considerable, even as it is not total.
 Deraa had been one of the four “de-escalation” zones created in September 2017 as part of the Astana process. The pro-Asad coalition had used the calm from these “de-escalation” zones to sequence its war, concentrating its resources on these areas one-by-one and liquidating them, deporting the survivors to Idlib, the final such zone still in existence and the source of a current crisis. Deraa was a special case: in July 2017, an agreement was formed after months of negotiations for a ceasefire in the south, with an agreement to freeze the front lines; the U.S. and Jordan would guarantee rebel compliance, and Russia was to keep Asad in check.
As the Deraa offensive was being prepared, the State Department issued a statement, on 25 May 2018, saying the U.S. would take “firm and appropriate measures” against any violations of the ceasefire agreement by the Asad regime. A statement in identical terms was issued on 14 June. The regime coalition’s initial operations into Deraa had begun on 19 June. On 21 June, the U.S. threatened “serious repercussions” if the pro-Asad forces attacked the Deraa “de-escalation zone”. A separate statement was released by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on 22, saying the U.S. “expect[s] Russia to do its part to respect and enforce the ceasefire it helped establish”.
Yet, on 24 June it became public that the U.S. had told the rebellion it was on its own. “[Y]ou should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us”, the U.S. wrote to the Free Syrian Army factions. The same day, the Russians came in with airstrikes. The Asad regime recommenced barrel bombing in the south that day after, after pausing for a year, and soon the hospitals were being targeted.
 In late May 2018, before the Deraa offensive began, the Russians agreed — in public — to keep all “non-Syrian forces” away from Israel’s border. By early July, the U.S. had effectively replaced the Israelis in dialogue with Russia: the contours of a deal were emerging a few weeks later that would withdraw American forces and at least some Iranian forces within a corridor near Israel’s border; Bolton was pushing for the total withdrawal of Iran’s troops first, before any U.S. troops were evacuated. It was thought that this deal would be finalised at the 16 July Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki; it was not. In the aftermath, the Russians continued to signal their intent to curb Hizballah, but on 23 July, the Israelis went public to reject Russia’s 100-kilometre Iranian-free zone, saying Iran had to leave entirely. By this time, however, it was over: Deraa city fell on 12 July and the deportations to Idlib had begun; Israel rescued many of the “White Helmets” on 22 July; and, with the rebellion crushed, the pro-Asad forces turned to the small ISIS pocket, wrapping up operations on 31 July. This effectively replaced ISIS with Hizballah on Israel’s border, regarded by a significant faction of Israelis as a dreadful strategic mistake.
 The Russia-Iran axis in support of anti-Western terrorism is not limited to the Arab world: in Afghanistan, the Russian policy is to work hand-in-glove with Iran in support the Taliban, against the Coalition and the Kabul government.