INTERVIEW: Russia’s game in Syria

INTERVIEW: Russia’s game in Syria
Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert negotiated with Russia's Vladimir Putin many times over the Syrian and Iranian questions.
By Ben Aris in Rhodes October 9, 2018

The military phase of the war in Syria is coming to an end, with the rebels and terrorists left in their last stronghold in the northern town of Iblid. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has already said that the Russian forces will pull out (although they are still there) but the situation remains fraught. bne IntelliNews editor-in-chief Ben Aris sat down with Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert at this year's Rhodes Forum "Dilaogue of the Civilisations," who has negotiated with Putin many times, focusing on Russia’s growing activity in the region, to discuss the conflict and what happens next.

Ben Aris: Clausewitz said “war is politics by other means,” but in the war in Syria there seems to be as much politics as war. There are several players in the field all with different goals and motivations. What is Israel’s interest in this conflict?

Ehud Olmert: The situation in Syria is complex and there have been problems for a long time, since 2011. It's a situation that has gone out of control. The emergence of Islamic State (IS) and the Caliphate and the confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has created a big mess.

This is an internal Syrian issue with possible ramifications outside. The question for Israel was if it should intervene? We could easily have overthrown Assad at that time. But we decided that as long as it doesn't pose any immediate dangers to Israel we would refrain. And that was the case until the end of 2016.

With the growing penetration of Iran [into Syria] we became a lot more concerned, especially with the political instability inside Syria itself.

At the same time the fact that America weakened its commitment to the Middle East has opened up a big space for the Russians to increase their penetration.

Now we have reached a point where Assad seems to have regained his position in Syria and there is a military presence from Iran.

We have an interest now. Iran, which a very vocal and aggressive enemy of Israel, has military forces on our border. We don't trust them. We know how to deal with Syria easily. But Iran is a different story.

The Russians seem to have exploited this very much to the benefit of their dominance in the area by allowing the Iranians to come into Syria, but at the same time supervising their entry so as not to upset the balance.

The Israeli interest is to block any further expansion of Iran into Syria, but at the same time not to get into any confrontation with Russia, which we don't see as an enemy of Israel.

Russians are not hostile to Israel. The Russians are interested in protecting what they consider to be their interests.

We will never attack Russia obviously. We are not idiots. But we will attack those, even those the Russians protect, if they endanger the state of Israel.

BA: Israel has been in Syria for about a year and is specifically targeting Hezbollah, Iranians and those Syrians that offer assistance to either of them. But this confuses the picture as it introduces another military player into the game with a specific set of interests.

EO: What can we do? It’s complex – yes. But we can’t ignore it. Can we rely on the Americans? Are they present in this area? No, they are not. They seem to have given up their desire to be the major player in this part of the world. It’s not a criticism. It's a fact.

BA: Doesn't that hugely change the political map of the region?

EO: I don't know if it hugely changes it, but it has an impact.

BA: The US drawback has created an opportunity and Russia has moved in.

EO: Is this the first time that Russia has had a military presence in Syria? No. So there is nothing dramatically new. Russia was in Syria before the 1973 war. And a Russian plane was shot down then over Syria. We have a history of conflicts. Now they have taken the opportunity that was created by the weakness of the Syrian government and they came in again to establish an exit to the Mediterranean via Syria.

BA: The Russians and the Iranians have become much closer. Is that a relationship that worries you or is it just a Great Game?

EO: It's a game. Don't lose track of the proportions. Is Russia really getting so much closer to Iran? They provided Iran with nuclear fuel for the Bushehr power station and the S300 missile system. Russia has had relations with Iran for many years and always wanted the option of having influence in that part of the world at the expense of American influence.

I had many discussions with President Vladimir Putin about Iran and about Russia’s intentions in the region and the supply of the S300 to Iran. At the time he refrained from supplying the S300 to Iran because he said I convinced him not to do it.

Russia uses Iran for its own ends. Russia will not allow Iran to endanger the state of Israel. This is my conviction. It's a pragmatic relation and there is no ideology to it.

Russia will not stop Iran from attacking Israel. But it will not assist Iran in that attack. If Israel attacks Iran then Russia will not intervene to prevent our attacks. We have been attacking Iran in Syria for the last year, hundreds of times, and Russia didn't intervene. We have created a special communications system to let the Russians know when we are coming to avoid precisely what happened a few weeks ago [when Syrian air defence accidentally shot down a Russian bomber during an attack by an Israel jet fighters on a target in Syria].

BA: What is Putin’s goal? Russia is not a natural ally of the Arab World. What does he hope to achieve?

EO: The Middle East is an important region that has always been of great interest to Russia. Putin told me many times in the past: “I have nothing against Israel and I won’t allow anyone to endanger it. I will not assist anyone that jeopardises the security of Israel, but don't get me wrong I will not lose my interests in those places if it means dealing with countries that are not friendly to Israel.” I don't like it. I’m not happy with it. I have a lot to say to Putin, but it is a masterplan of Russian interests.

BA: There were reports in July that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he personally persuaded US President Donald Trump to reimpose Iran sanctions. Isn’t the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran in Israel’s interests?

EO: If there are sanctions that threaten the strength of the Iranian government then whoever mobilised the US to reimpose sanctions deserves credit.

The other question, which is not as important, is: is it a good thing that the US cancelled its agreement with Iran while Germany, France, China and Russia are all tied to this agreement, or should the old agreement have stayed in place with America participating? That's a tough question.

I think the old agreement was better and I didn't support the Americans cancelling their participation in the agreement. I don't think it was the most useful thing to do.

BA: The military phase in Syria is coming to an end. What happens next?

EO: Assad lost his moral authority in the eyes of the rest of the world. I tried to make peace with him and he was dumb enough not to understand how useful it could be. He pulled out at the last moment in 2008 in what could have been a historical decision.

He slaughtered 500,000 of his own people. It is not something that can be forgotten or forgiven. He will eventually be thrown out. But I hope that he will be thrown out by genuine Syrian parties and not extremists or jihadists.

Is Assad capable of rebuilding his country and making it prosperous? I doubt it. He is from a minority. The choice will be between a tight brutal regime or a genuine strong opposition.

I hope an opposition will emerge. And I think the Russians won’t intervene. If there is a choice between Assad and extremists then there is no choice. But if the choice is between Assad and a genuine opposition in Syria then I think Russia won’t care and won’t intervene in any change.

This interview has been edited for style and brevity. Listen to the full interview as a bne podcast here: