Observers tell us that both Israel and Russia have different agendas in the region, yet they have common interests that make them want to avoid any major confrontation.
One point of interest for both countries is Azerbaijan. Israel, just like Russia, is selling substantial arms to this country, which is building up for possible military action against Armenia to recover its lost territory still under Armenian occupation. Israel is said to have acquired at least one air base from Azerbaijan from which it carries out reconnaissance operations into Iran. The base may even be used as a springboard for future attacks to debilitate Iran’s developing nuclear capabilities.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are technically in a state of war, yet both Israel and Russia are on good terms with these countries. Their interests do not conflict. Iran is Israel’s nightmare, but Russia does not want any country to threaten Iran. They also have similar interest in Syria although they have different agendas.
Putin has always regretted that the Soviet system lost its influence as a world power, which kept the global balance of power intact. Hence a countervailing power is needed to balance the unilateral American power and influence, which have made inroads into Russia’s security zones in the Baltics, Eastern Europe and in Asia. In this sense both the US and NATO are to blame for the dismantling of the Soviet sphere that Mr. Putin longs for and the encirclement of the present Russian Federation. Hence, they are Russia’s adversaries. That is why he sees his country’s support of both Iran and Syria as a part of maintaining Russian power and containing that of the US.
Is present-day Russia an imperialist power like the Soviet Union was? It is not, but Putin’s aim is not getting hold of or dominating these two countries. He simply does not want Western, particularly American, domination over them that curtails Russian security and economic interests. Furthermore, Arab/Muslim dislike of the Western world (especially America) at the popular level has strengthened the hand of Russia, which posed as the defender of the victimized Muslim countries by Western colonialism, and this dynamic allowed for manipulation. Observing its influence in the northern part of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus, we can safely state that Russia is the dominant power in these theaters. But it wants to exert its influence on other areas where US power is waning and a new game plan is to be made, namely the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin.
The Arab Spring and the revolutionary zest it has created are not pro-American, and Russia is happy about that because this antagonism draws the attention of the US away from areas where Russia wants to have a strong presence. That is why Russia supports both Iran and Syria. Obviously, Russian rulers are not very attracted to the governments of these countries, but as long as they remain at odds with the US, they serve the interests of the Russian Federation.
However, with each passing day the Syrian regime is losing its capability to stay in power. Then both Russia and Israel have two options: Either to support the Assad regime no matter what and become very unpopular, or to make sure that a radical Sunni regime does not come to power that could form a strong alliance with other radical Sunni forces in the Middle East such as al-Qaeda, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. For Israel, the present Syrian government has two merits: 1) It is predictable in the sense that it will never take on Israel as a military opponent; and 2) Its Alawite minority government blocks Sunni domination in the country and prevents the formation of a radical Sunni alliance in the region. So as long as Syria does not become Iran’s satellite, Bashar al-Assad may remain in power.
However, both Russia and Israel are realizing that the chances of Assad’s rule continuing are diminishing. Their next best option is to help craft a moderate Sunni government on which Russia’s leverage will remain as long as its interests are catered to, such as its present military bases.
For Israel, how the new Syrian government treats its own people is not that important. Israel’s security must be protected. The impression that has emerged out of the last Israeli-Russian summit is that both of these countries want to be in the designing process for the “day after,” following the demise of the Assad government. If not, they will go on supporting the present Syrian regime as long as possible.