Although the Russian Government moved into help Assad of Syria sustain himself in power to pre-empt his removal by the opposition and thereby keep the United States at bay and deal a heavy blow to Islamic fundamentalists supported surreptitiously by Turkey, it has landed itself at the epicentre of Near Eastern politics in a way the US Government did when it foolishly invaded Iraq under President George Bush Junior. Both moves were most unwise. In international relations it is all too easy for Great Powers to wade into a complex situation than to withdraw. Why else is the United States still out of area in Afghanistan?
It is in the interests of neither Russia nor the United States to immerse itself in the infinite complexities of the wars between countries in the Near and Middle East nor in South Asia. Neither Power really understands the complexities of the situation and some who do, specialists in the region, certainly in Moscow, have their own fish to fry. Yet Iran seems intent on dragging both Powers in, and herein lies the acute danger of a confrontation between Washington and Moscow with forces on the ground.
The good news out of the crisis over the Syrian shoot-down of the Russian electronic intelligence plane, an Il-20 coming into land in Syria, is that both the moderate and the hardline elements in Moscow have awoken to the fact that, increasingly hypnotised by the need to save Assad, they have inadvertently been played by Iran in pursuit of purely Iranian ambitions. This is apparent from coverage by both the more moderate Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie and the hardline Vzglyad ru.
An article by the chief editor of Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, Shcherbakov, that appeared on 24 September pointed out that people had missed a crucial piece of news that came out of the crisis over the Il-20 shootdown. “Moscow in fact for the first time officially and openly acknowledged the presence in Syria of weighty forces, whether actually Iranian or pro-Iranian, deploying powerful offensive capabilities that could not be aimed at anyone other than Israel.” Major General Igor Konashenkov, speaking on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Defence, made that much clear. And Shcherbakov goes on to ask bluntly how one could realistically accept the idea that the forces tied to Iran in Syria are anything other than Iranian; that Teheran has not played with a straight bat on the same team as the Russians in Syria; and that the weapons systems deployed by the Iranians in Syria are obviously too powerful for the destruction of Assad’s opposition and can only be designed to hit Israel. Hence the title of Shcherbakov’s article: “A Missile Attack on Israel is Inevitable.”
Even hardliners in Moscow are perturbed by Iranian threats to block the Gulf Of Hormuz, as this would cut off the trans-shipment of one quarter of the world’s oil supply and doubtless lead to a military collision with the United States. And, though not stated explicitly, with President Donald Trump in power in the United States, the Russians do not think it wise to undertake risky military action without having thought through the possible consequences (A. Rezchikov, “K chemu privedet blokirovka Iranom Ormuzskogo proliva”. Vzglyad ru, 26 September 2018.)