The sixth international conference aimed at settling the Syrian civil war kicked off in Kazakhstan on Thursday, with key international players gathering in the capital of Astana to discuss the Russian- led cease-fire plan.
Russia intervened in the conflict in September 2015 when rebels and armed groups seemed to have the upper hand in Damascus and has since dramatically changed the landscape of the war on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Moscow has made connections with key international players in the conflict, acting as the middleman passing messages from the US-led coalition and Israel to players such as Hezbollah and Iran, a country which is increasingly trying to create a Shia hegemony and which views itself a regional power and by Moscow as a strategic partner in the Syrian conflict.
Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced their concern about the entrenchment of Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah entrenching themselves in Syria, and is reported to have passed messages to Tehran through Russia.
On Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin said the “discussion focused on the situation in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq and the Persian Gulf region, and the fight against terrorism.”
According to Aaron Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the US-led coalition’s focus on striking ISIS has allowed Assad and its allies to focus on fighting moderate Syrian rebel groups. Zelin stated that Moscow, which provides air support for Assad troops, is the unofficial air force of Hezbollah and other Shi’ite terrorist groups in Syria.
Backed by Russian air strikes, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organization has played a significant role in Syria, recapturing the city of Aleppo for the Assad regime and are currently pushing into parts of the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, after breaking the three-year-long siege of two enclaves which had been encircled by Islamic State.
Following the breaking of the Deir al-Zor siege, Hezbollah were seen parading inside the city and the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday stated that the Assad regime has won the civil war after six years and that what remained “are scattered battles.”
With both Russia and Israel acting in Syria, officials from the two countries meet regularly and have implemented a system over Syria to coordinate their actions in order avoid accidental clashes.
Zelin told The Jerusalem Post that as long as Russia’s interests aren’t affected, Moscow “doesn’t mind Israel doing the dirty work,” and continuing to strike Hezbollah targets and convoys of advanced weaponry destined for the group.
In October, Russia deployed the advanced mobile S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft batteries to Syria. The batteries are capable of engaging multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles at a distance of up to 380 km., covering virtually all of Syria as well as significant parts of Israel and neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan.
Former Israel Air Force head Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel has stated that Jerusalem has carried out 100 air strikes in Syria over the past five years. The last air strike attributed to Israel hit a Syrian military position known for many years as a center for the research and development of weapons systems, including chemical weapons, and was situated about 30 km. away from one of the Russian S-400 batteries.
In July, Russia deployed military police to monitor two safe zones established in Syria including one watchpost near the Golan Heights.
Fighting between rebel groups and regime forces has caused sporadic leakage of fire hitting Israeli territory, leading the IDF to retaliate against some 56 regime targets in Syria’s side of the Golan Heights.
At the time, Col.-Gen.Sergei Rudskoy, chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff said Moscow had informed Jerusalem about the deployment of troops near Israel.
“It is to be stressed that the nearest watch post is 13 kilometers far from the zone of separation zone between Israel and Syria near the Golan Heights. The zone has been approved in accordance with the international agreements,” he said, adding that Moscow had also informed the US and Jordan about the deployment.
While the Russians seemed to have turned the tide of the war for Assad, it is unlikely that Syria will return to how it was before the outbreak of the conflict, but rather a confederation of states, controlled by various parties.
With Russia expected to exert significant influence on the Astana talks, Israel will be keeping an eye on any agreements which may to lead to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.