Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a surprise visit to Israel last week for talks about Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. The negotiations came amid heightened tensions along Syria’s southern border with Israel, where the Assad regime’s recent offensive to retake lost territory from rebels renewed conflict in an area that had been protected by a 2017 cease-fire agreement guaranteed by Russia, Jordan and the United States. The fighting raises concerns about the proximity of Iranian-backed forces, including Hezbollah, to northern Israel. In response to this threat, Israel launched a series of attacks on Iranian targets within Syria, including the bombing of a military site used by Iranians to manufacture missiles.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel will continue to act against Iran’s interests in the region, and said he would even accept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continued hold on power if Russia can “get the Iranians out.” The day after Israeli-Russian talks began, however, Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet it said was violating its airspace, drawing condemnation from the Assad regime and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The episode highlights the risk of spiraling escalation in this small stretch of territory, and the divergent goals of Russia and Israel in Syria, where Iran could be the spoiler for any potential long-term cooperation.
During last week’s talks, Russia reportedly agreed to remove Iranian troops from the border region and proposed a 100-kilometer buffer between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Iranian forces. Netanyahu immediately rejected the proposal, reportedly telling Lavrov, “We will not allow the Iranians to establish themselves even 100 kilometers from the border.” Therein lies the problem with Russian-Israeli rapprochement on Syria: Israel ultimately wants the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria, an objective Russia cannot secure. Russia has warned that it is unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country, and earlier this week stated publicly that it cannot compel such an outcome. Russia has attempted to appease Israel with solutions focusing on the border area, but even those have fallen short.