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World Middle East

Israel’s diplomacy with Russia reaps benefits in Syria

  • paula_slier
Media reports suggest that Iranian forces, assisted by Hezbollah and Shia militias, are to withdraw from the areas they currently occupy near the Golan Heights in southern Syria.
by PAULA SLIER | Jun 07, 2018

This is a huge victory for Israel, whose position has been consistent: not to allow any kind of Iranian military camps to be set up near Israel’s northern border with Syria.

The Israelis have achieved this by getting Moscow on their side. After all, it is Russia who calls the shots in Syria. It has been doing so ever since September 2015, when it was invited by the Damascus government to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

In the past week, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited the Russian capital, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a telephone discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Reports suggest that both sides agreed that Moscow would allow Jerusalem - albeit tacitly - to attack Iranian sites in Syria, as long as they were not tied to the Damascus government, which Russia supports.

Netanyahu is all smiles. Repeatedly he’s made his position clear: allowing Iran to set up military bases in Syria is a red line from which he won’t budge. And since May, there has certainly been a change in Russia’s behaviour towards Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

Think back to February, when the Israeli air force shot down an Iranian drone that had entered Israeli territory. Jerusalem responded with two waves of aerial bombardments that destroyed almost half of Syria’s air defence systems.

In a foreign ministry statement, Moscow objected to Israel’s violation of Syrian sovereignty, while ignoring Tehran’s provocation by sending in the drone in the first place.

Moscow would have known when the Iranian drone took off, as it was very close to its air-control centre in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Moscow chose not to give the Israelis any warning.

At the time, there was a lot of discussion and analysis about whether Russia had taken Iran’s side in the conflagration.

Compare this to last month’s 9 May Victory Day celebrations, when Netanyahu had pride of place, walking alongside Putin in Red Square during the ceremonial military parade. The following night, the Israeli air force carried out massive attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, it’s largest action there in decades.

This time, the Russians did not issue a strong statement of criticism against Jerusalem – and in so doing sent a tacit message to both the Israelis and the Iranians. The message: Russia is not in the pocket of Iran, and is prepared to turn the cheek when Israel strikes Iranian sites in Syria.

Jerusalem has repeatedly vowed to prevent Tehran establishing a permanent presence in Syria. In recent months, Jerusalem has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Should the Russians have chosen to do so, they would have had the ability to protect such targets with their own air force and air defence systems inside Syria. But clearly they’ve chosen not to.

Israel has always respected Russia’s involvement in Syria, presumably because she sees it as a means of stabilising her northern neighbour. In return, Russia understands Israel’s security concerns.

Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he will not shy away from using military force to keep Iran out of Syria.

No doubt, Moscow wants to avoid a military confrontation between Russia and Israel that would risk a direct clash with American President Donald Trump, who sits squarely behind Jerusalem.

Now, as the war in Syria winds down, Moscow is pushing for a peace settlement to be hammered out as soon as possible. Iranian advancement in Syria destabilises the chances of success. What’s more, the Russians are distrustful of Tehran.

The countries share a complicated and uneasy history. Moscow’s standing in the Middle East is the strongest it’s been in decades. It doesn’t want to upset relationships it’s worked hard to cultivate with other major powers in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis.

Politically, Putin doesn’t need the war in Syria to earn him brownie points back home. He campaigned heavily on his foreign policy achievements in the Middle East and North Africa ahead of the Russian presidential elections in March. However, now that he’s secured a fourth term in office, his attentions have turned elsewhere.

Iran, meanwhile, says it won’t withdraw its troops from Syria, arguing that, like Russia, it is in the war-torn country at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But it’s questionable what the Iranians could do should Moscow pressure them to leave. Assad would listen to Moscow; and ultimately the Iranians would follow suit.

This week, Tehran announced that it was working to increase its uranium enrichment capacity in a threat to European powers who are desperately trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal after the Trump administration withdrew from it.

The country is trying to save face in what was a huge blow, not only for Iranian reformists, but also for the Iranian economy which is now bracing for crippling sanctions.

For Tehran to have to withdraw from Syria would be another major setback to the country’s prestige. It would also hinder the establishment of an overland stretch of influence from Iran to southern Lebanon.

It's still too early to say whether Israel's diplomacy with Russia will result in the complete removal of Iran from Syria. Israel’s success so far seems to have been only to keep Iranian forces away from her border.

The next step will be for Netanyahu to convince Putin that Iranian forces must leave Syria completely. It remains to be seen whether he can succeed.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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