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Iran and Hezbollah prepare to fill the void as Russia reduces its military presence in Syria

Russian troops began withdrawing from Syria and mobilizing reinforcement to Ukraine; Israel worries Iran will exploit the opportunity to further entrench forces close to the border

Russian soldiers in armored vehicles patrolling a street in Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 2, 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Ali Hashisho)

Russian forces have begun reducing their presence on the ground in Syria and transferring some of their troops to the war in Ukraine. The mobilization of forces is meant to speed up the stalled campaign to annex Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, reported The Moscow Times.

The report indicated that several Russian units have already been mobilized from Russian bases in Syria to three unnamed Mediterranean airports and from there will be deployed to Ukraine.

There is no current indication of the exact number of Russian troops based in Syria, but Moscow says that 63,000 Russian military personnel – almost half of which were officers – were deployed to the Middle Eastern country between 2015 and 2018. They were commanded by General Alexander Dvornikov, who was chosen in April to oversee the Russian offensive in Ukraine.

Israel is closely watching these developments, since the abandoned bases in Syria have now reportedly been transferred to Iranian control, that includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Lebanese terror group, Hezbollah.

Ever since Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war in 2015 and tipped the scale in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Israel has sought the Kremlin’s consent before launching air raids on Iranian targets. The Israeli air campaign was usually coordinated with Moscow in order to avoid accidents between Israeli and Russian forces. One such memorable accident occurred in 2018, when a Syrian anti-aircraft destroyed a Russian plane during an alleged Israeli missile strike. Russia also gave its promise to Israel that it would keep Iran and its proxies 53 miles (about 85 kilometers) away from the Golan Heights in northern Israel.

Against this backdrop, Israel has tried to remain cautious in its criticism of Russia’s brutal actions in Ukraine. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett even flew to Moscow in the midst of the invasion, in an attempt to mediate between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The changing dynamics on the ground in Syria could pose new challenges for Israel, which has sought to prevent Iran from using the war-torn country for its military base.

The Times of Israel quoted Israeli Middle East pundit Ehud Ya’ari of Channel 12 news, saying that “Israel has no way of truly influencing the considerations of the Russian deployment in Syria.”

“It is worth remembering that Russia, even when cooperating with Iran in Syria, has always sought to limit and shrink Iran’s foothold there and the depth of Iran’s infiltration of Assad’s army and security services,” Ya’ari added.

A key development in that regard is a surprise visit that al-Assad made to Tehran on Sunday. The Syrian president met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi, returning to his country on the same day. In his meetings, al-Assad reportedly said, “The strategic ties between Iran and Syria have prevented the Zionist regime’s [Israel] dominance in the region.” 

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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