A Wakeup Call
The Iranian forces and Iran-supported militias are expanding in Syria and approaching the Israeli border. This is happening with the full support and facilitation of Russia, even though Russia knows very well that Iran's aim is to fight the State of Israel and eradicate it, and that its expansion in Syria will significantly advance that aim. While Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov calls Israel's demand that the Iranians maintain a distance of 40 km from its border "not realistic" – after Iran has come 2,000 km to reach this point – Russian Defense Minister Shoygu has the temerity to come to Israel and entreat it to refrain from defending itself.
The Russians believe that they can mislead Jerusalem. But so far, Israel has elected to act according to facts, rather than being taken in by Russian duplicity, and is striking Syrian targets that endanger Israel.
While Syria and Iran enjoy full Russian support, Israel lacks U.S. backing against the Russia-Iran threat. The U.S. does not even stand for itself in Syria – just a few days ago, Russia, like a rogue state, violated the deconfliction zone agreement that it itself had signed with the U.S. Therefore, Iran's expansion into all of Syria up to the Israeli border will soon be completed, with the full support of Russia, and with an eventual withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria.
Senior Iranian officials and military commanders have already clarified that after Syria, Israel is next.
Israel will have to fight its war against the Iran-Russia-Syria axis alone. It will need America's diplomatic backing, military equipment, and economic assistance, but never American troops. But as matters stand, the actual U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Iran's expansion in the region is contrary to its rhetoric, which opposes this expansion (the U.S. agreed, both in the Astana talks and in the deconfliction zones agreement with Russia, to legitimize Iran's presence in Syria). This means that American support for Israel against the Iran-Russia axis is not assured. The U.S.'s Russia policy also does not guarantee that the U.S. will stand with Israel against the Iranian threat that is enabled by Russia.
Israel is well equipped to answer existential threats if it must – even if they are either directly or indirectly Russian. At the same time, Russia's military power may prove to be overestimated. Russia acts as if it is a world power, but its advanced weaponry may fail against Israeli-American technological superiority. This may be why Russia is in no hurry to launch its missiles when Israel strikes in Syria. President Obama even called Russia a regional power.
This is not to say that there is no existential threat to Israel. Clearly, the Iran-Russia-Syria-Hizbullah axis does pose such a threat, but Israel can overcome it, if it must. However, its ability to face the threat depends on early recognition that Russia is part of the enemy axis.
The inability of many in Israel and the West to perceive Russia as the enemy stems from the belief that Russia has no reason in the world to be Israel's enemy. Therefore, they ignore what they see happening in Syria, and instead provide complicated explanations about an inherent conflict of interests between Russia and Iran. This is a psychological failing from which Israel suffered bitterly in its history, as have other nations.
So why would Russia align itself politically and strategically with Iran?
Russia views itself as a superpower fighting to reclaim its former status. Indeed, for Russia the enemy is not Israel. Russia's true adversary is the U.S., and Israel is an historic ally of that adversary. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an increasingly embittered Russia has escalated its attempts to regain its past glory. The Russian regime hates the U.S. (to understand this, it is sufficient to read Putin's address a few days ago at the annual Valdai Club conference; see MEMRI Russian Media Project report).
But Russia cannot fight the U.S. directly. America is in the North Sea, and the best Russia can do is dispatch planes to buzz the U.S. Navy there. NATO is expanding eastwards and Russia's forces are no match for it – as attested to by General Staff Col. (ret.) Mikhail Khoradenok on Russian television, to the dismay of his audience: "We have 200 warplanes, while NATO has 3,800. We have 1,600 armored vehicles and APCs, while NATO has more than 20,000... Thus, anyone who talks about our capability to wage a conventional war against NATO is clearly too hotheaded" (see MEMRI Russian Media Project Clip #5902, February 14, 2017). Russia's single antiquated smoke-belching aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is no match for the U.S. Navy, with its 10 advanced carriers.
Russia cannot take on America directly, and it is using Iran as its proxy to humiliate America, undermine its status, and expel it from the region. At the same time, Russia can use Iran as a bargaining chip to obtain what it needs the most: a lifting of the sanctions that were imposed after Russia annexed Crimea and dismembered Ukraine. Russian regime-affiliated think tanks and media explicitly stated in early 2017 that Russia's alliance with Iran could be a bargaining chip; see reports from the MEMRI Russian Media Project, below.
Unless and until Russia and the West strike a deal on lifting these sanctions in exchange for Russia's abandoning its alliance with Iran – which is completely unrealistic – Russia will cling to this alliance. This is because Iran reinforces Russia's superpower aspirations and pretensions, and shares, and serves, Russia's drive to humiliate and undermine the U.S. Any harm done to Israel in the process does not figure in Russia's strategic considerations vis-à-vis the U.S. Worse, even if Russia were to change direction at any time in the future, Iran's Russia-enabled expansion in Syria, and its proximity to Israel, will remain, and will serve as the Islamic Republic's launching pad for its war against Israel.
*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI and served as advisor to two Israeli prime ministers for countering terrorism.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6742, Director General Of Russian Government-Funded Think Tank: Current Russia–Iran Relations Cannot Be Called A Strategic Partnership, A One-Time Enemy Could Easily Become A Future Ally, January 16, 2017; MEMRI Special Dispatch No.6779, Pro-Kremlin Pravda.ru: 'Iran Is Becoming A Major Problem, First And Foremost For Russia's Interests', February 12, 2017.; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6808, Columnist For Russian Daily 'Kommersant': 'Moscow [Understands] That In Iran It Has A Really Capricious And Unpredictable Partner. That Opens A Certain Window Of Opportunity For Donald Trump's Diplomacy', March 1, 2017; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6813, Russian Media Outlet 'Vzglyad': 'Tehran Will Be Expected To Compensate Moscow For The Costs It Will Incur In Providing Geopolitical Cover For Iran', March 3, 2017.)