(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST,MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Washington had misgivings about the blossoming “bromance” between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin back in 2015 as “Russia was mauling Ukraine,” former US ambassador Dan Shapiro said on Wednesday.
Shapiro said he argued at the time, however, that Israel had no choice but to work with the “superpower operating in its backyard.”
Netanyahu rushed to Moscow in September 2015 – soon after Russia sent forces to Syria – to set up a mechanism to ensure that Israeli and Russian airplanes would not accidentally clash in Syrian skies. He has met with the Russian leader another six times since then.
Shapiro, in a lengthy Twitter thread dealing with Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin on Wednesday in Sochi, said the trip makes “perfect sense, considering Israel’s stake in Syria and Russia’s undeniable influence there.”
Shapiro praised Netanyahu for using his dialogue with Putin effectively since Russian forces moved into Syria, saying the prime minister has “provided clarity on Israel’s redlines in Syria and set up channels to avoid unintended conflict between Israeli and Russian aircraft.”
Shapiro pointed out that Russia could have, had it wanted, constrained Israeli freedom of action in Syria, but that Moscow has not obstructed various operations such as Israel’s striking weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon, retaliation to deter cross-border fire on the Golan Heights, and acting to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from opening a new front from Syria.
Amid the misgivings in Washington over the Netanyahu-Putin relationship, Shapiro said he argued that it was “also a US interest to avoid Russian-Israeli clashes over Syria, or Israel finding its hands tied vs Syria threats.”
With the defeat of Islamic State in Syria nearing, Shapiro wrote that the situation is becoming more complicated, and that Israel is “rightfully concerned that allies of the Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah, under Russian protection, will gain access to areas vacated by ISIS fighters and use that territory to attack Israel, and to establish a land bridge to facilitate flows of arms and people to Lebanon.”
Shapiro said that Israel’s first preference is to coordinate with the US against those threats, and the recent cease-fire in southern Syria did involve such coordination, “even though Israel is not satisfied with the lack of specificity on keeping Iran and Hezbollah out of south Syria, and questions about enforcement.”
The former ambassador said that when the Islamic State stronghold in Syria at Raqqa falls, and if President Donald Trump then declares victory over the organization and announces that the US work in Syria is done, “that could leave vast swaths of the country open to Iranian and Hezbollah influence.”
Referring to a high level delegation headed by Mossad head Yossi Cohen that went to Washington last week to discuss Syria and Iran, Shapiro wrote that “it’s clear that Israeli officials were not fully comfortable with what they heard in Washington last week regarding US Syria strategy.”
And, he added, “it’s simply not clear yet to what extent the Trump administration will be active in trying to prevent scenarios in Syria that Israel fears most.”
The former ambassador said that Trump’s recent “reluctant and modest expansion” of US forces in Afghanistan suggests “he won’t look for a broader campaign in Syria.”
It makes sense, therefore, for Israel to “turn to Putin to try to ensure Russia sets limits” on Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Syria. What isn’t clear, he added, is how much the Russians will be willing to cooperate, though they may have an interest in not wanting to draw Israel deeper into the Syrian conflict.
Shapiro also wrote that it seems as if Israel is adjusting to the reality that President Bashar Assad, with Russian backing, “is not going anywhere anytime soon,” and that Russia may be a source of stability in Syria and a constraint on Iranian ambitions there, though that is not something that is guaranteed.