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Visit with long-term goals: Israel bringing Russia and U.S. together in Syria

Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: timesofisrael.com

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu is arriving in Moscow on September 21.  It will be a working visit for a few hours, during which the Israeli prime minister is to discuss Middle East issues with the Russian leadership. The key issue on the agenda of the talks is Syria and the latest reports about Russia’s growing military presence there. 

Netanyahu’s visit cannot be called “critical,” though it is quite urgent. Moscow-and Tel-Aviv have partner relations and exchange views on all the Middle East-related issues the two countries have interests in. Although contacts of the two countries’ top leaderships have become less intensive at the final stage of the nuclear talks between P5+1 and Iran, the situation in Syria made the two partners restore their usual dialogue. 

Syria has become a frontline state for Israel since 2011. The Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) no longer exists as such. Syria has been torn into several territories during the four years of the raging civil war and actions of the multi-national extremist groups. The western sector of the erstwhile SAR has a common border with Israel.  Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, no serious incident involving the Israeli army has happened in the area of the Golan Heights. The Islamic State is not active here yet. The armed clashes with the Syrian Government troops on this line of the front involve overwhelmingly the Al Qaeda-lined Jabhat al Nusra group militants.

The Jihadists are so far fighting against Bashar al Assad, but “the holy war” may spill over into the eastern borders of the Jewish state over time.

In the Syrian conflict, Israel has taken a pragmatic stance of positive neutrality – positive to the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition. Israel has not rendered direct military assistance to the rivals of the Syrian authorities. There were reports that Israel allegedly renders intelligence support to the sane oppositionists in Syria. However, those reports have not been confirmed. All that was confirmed – Tel Aviv never rejected that fact –  is that a limited number of the wounded “moderate” Syrian oppositionists receive treatment at Israeli hospitals.

Israel’s authorities do not need a chaos in Syria. Bashar al Assad’s regime was hostile to Israel, but he was a systemic and quite predictable actor in the Middle East. This makes clear that in case of Assad’s failure, Israel would like to see there another systemic power responsible for its policy. Yet, there is no alternative to Assad in Syria and it will hardly emerge in the near future.  The “moderate” Syrian opposition represented by the “Syrian National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces” and its combat force “Free Syrian Army” have gone all to pieces. Besides Assad’s forces and the local Kurd rebels fighting in the north of the country, no forces resist the Islamic militants in the battlefield where the fate of Assad’s Syria hangs in the balance.  Therefore, Israel has nothing to do but support the balance of power between the forces fighting in Syria.

According to Haaretz, Israel no longer seeks Bashar al Assad’s overthrow and prefers status quo when the weakened regime controls “Little Syria” (“Alawistan”) that occupies less than half of the former SAR’s territory.

Israel supporting the status quo in Syria is not a direct interference with the conflict. These are a range of indirect military-political steps. One of such elements of Israel’s strategy toward Syria is Tel Aviv’s readiness for cooperation with Moscow.

Before addressing possible partnership of Russian and Israel over Syria, it is necessary to recall another strategic task of Netanyahu’s Cabinet.  The Israeli leadership is concerned over Hezbollah, a Shiite political party that supports Assad and operates - as directed by Iran - in the west of Syria, on the border with Lebanon. The Lebanese organization has turned into an important factor in the region. Hezbollah fighters have not been fighting against Israel for almost 10 years, but they are gaining experience in battle in Syria and increasing their fire power. Israel is very much concerned over this. According to Israel’s intelligence data, Hezbollah’s rocket and missile arsenal has increased many-fold since its last large-scale military conflict against Israel in the summer of 2006.  Israel is sure that the Lebanese Shiites get weapons from Syria.  What outrages Israel is that Iran is interested in increasing the military power of Hezbollah.

Until recently, Israel’s Defense Army easily destroyed the arms supply channel to Lebanon from Syria. Israel’s Air Force conducted many secret operations to prevent deployment of arms and military hardware for Hezbollah. Many of such air raids were in Latakia province near the Mediterranean Sea, an optimal area for arms transit to Lebanon.

These days Israel is more than ever concerned over its policy toward Syria and strengthening of Hezbollah (and Iran!) in the region, as Russia ramped up involvement in Syria by means of an “airstrip” in Latakia.

Israel’s intelligence is one of the best in the world. Therefore, it knows that most of the Western media reports alarming that “Russians go to Syria” are blatant propaganda.  However, sometimes propaganda has an important role in the inter-state affairs, especially when it is necessary to attract public attention to an issue and see it on the front pages of foreign newspapers. It is noteworthy that Israel is behind the first information leaks on Russia’s military base in Latakia.   Tel Aviv had no intention to spoil its relations with Moscow. It just needed to express its concerns with help of the world’s media. 

According to Israel’s media, their prime minister will arrive in Moscow to meet with Putin over deploying Russian’s troops in Syria. Tel Aviv is concerned that presence of the Russian military hardware and specialists will tie up Israel’s Air Force and even lead to unpredictable military incidents. Netanyahu wants to hear from Putin what Russia pursues by deploying forces in Syria and how long that will continue.  The prime minister is going to discuss the measures to prevent possible clashes between the Israeli army and Russian military in Syria.

According to the Jewish media, Russia has deployed in Syria not only armored vehicles, radars and advanced missile systems, but also manpower that have arrived at the military bases near Latakia. There were reports that Moscow sent the SA-22 system, known as Pantsir-S1 in Russian, to Latakia.  This may restrict the actions of the Israel Air Force over Syria, as advanced air-defense systems in the territory of Syria will “string-up” the pilots of Israel’s Defense Army. This is how Israeli authors present the anxiety of their government. Rather, the question is whether these systems have been deployed to Syria and whether they will ever occur in the hands of Assad’s troops.

Anyway, Netanyahu’s working visit to Russia pursues also another goal i.e. to find out if Moscow will be acting autonomously or in close cooperation with Tehran.

Netanyahu travels to Moscow with pressing concerns and anticipates answers to his questions from the Russian leader. Furthermore, on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit, the Israeli leadership made it plain that not only they anticipate Moscow to unveil its policy toward Syria, but are also ready to offer cooperation to their Russian partners. It is evident that Israel’s army command and intelligence are inclined to coordinate their actions with Russia. Talking to Reuters earlier, Amos Gilad, senior adviser to Israeli Defense Minister, said Israel and Russia will be coordinating their actions in Syria.  "There are ways. They are not our enemies today," Gilad said.

Danny Yatom, former director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, agrees which such views. In an interview on the television, he said that Russia’s assistance to Damascus may certainly play into the hands of Israel. In his words, it is not clear how the civil war in Syria will end. If the rebels win, radical groups will turn against Israel.

At the same time, Yatom is sure that  despite Russia’s military presence in Syria, Israel can further act within its interests and prevent Iran’s efforts to gain more influence in the area bordering Israel.  According to the ex-chief of Israel’s intelligence service, both Iranians and Islamic-militants threaten Israel and the fight against them is a strategic task that is not connected with any other foreign interference in Syria.

It is hard to escape a conclusion that Israel has felt the moment and chose the optimal time to launch a comprehensive dialogue with Russia over Syria.  As Washington takes a break to think over Moscow’s proposal over Syria, Israel appears to have made its choice.  Its dialogue with Iran is impossible.  They have nothing to do but start a trust-based dialogue with the Kremlin.

In this light, the prime minister of Israel and the U.S. president will meet in November while Netanyahu will be attending the conference of Jewish Federation of Northern America in New York, Israeli media reported referring to their sources in the White House. Earlier, it was reported that Obama will meet Netanyahu as early as in late September – early October on sidelines of the 70th Session of UNGA in New York. 

Considering the consistency of the Israeli prime minister’s contacts, one can suppose that Netanyahu is mediating the talks between Putin and Obama over Syria. The visit of Moshe Ya'alon, Defense Minister of Israel, to Washington at the invitation of his U.S. counterpart Ashton Carter fits into this trend.

Evidently, in both the cases, the top officials of Israel will be promoting the interests of their country in such important issue as Israel’s further military advantage in the Middle East. After the Vienna agreement on the nuclear program of Iran, U.S. may increase its military assistance to the Middle East ally. Israel will hardly miss such a good chance to bring Russia and U.S. closer in the talks over Syria. They will use that chance to launch mediatory service, of course, at the consent of the White House and the Kremlin.

Israeli media recall that Netanyahu avoided visiting Moscow before not to look as “Putin’s supporter” in the eyes of the West that was angry with Russia’s policy in Ukraine. Now, Netanyahu informed Washington of his intention to travel to Moscow and, according to confidential information, received approval.

EADaily Middle East Bureau

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