Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia August 23, 2017..
(photo credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin knows full well that Israel is adamantly opposed to any post-civil war arrangement in Syria that will leave Iranian military forces in place. He doesn’t need Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hop on a plane and disturb his summer holiday on the Black Sea beach resort of Sochi to tell him.
So why did Netanyahu go? Because the objective is less to try to convince Putin of Israel’s position, and more to look him in the eyes and tell him squarely what Israel will do if Iran begins to militarily entrench itself in Syria.
Israel’s message to Putin, which is the same message that was conveyed to the Americans last week via a blue-ribbon security delegation headed by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, is that Israel will act militarily.
Netanyahu wants this to be a factor in Putin’s decision-making process.
Because if Israel does act militarily in Syria, the question will be how does Russia respond.
Former US ambassador Dan Shapiro pointed out in a Twitter thread on Tuesday something that seems obvious, but is much overlooked.
Israel, he wrote, has acted on numerous occasions inside Syria, be it to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons from Iran to Lebanon, be it in retaliation for rockets or mortar shells that fell either intentionally or inadvertently on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, or be it to keep Iran or Hezbollah away from the border. And while the Russians could have acted to prevent this, they did not.
Netanyahu went to Sochi to let Putin know what Israel plans to do in the event that Iran tries to build air bases, a naval port, or permanent army bases inside Syria.
It would take action. It would take as precise military action as possible, so as not to endanger any Russian forces in the country, but it will not allow Iran to turn Syria into a base of operation against Israel.
Cohen joined Netanyahu in Moscow, but it is unlikely that he presented Putin with any new intelligence information that knocked the Russian leader off his chair.
The Russians have pretty good intelligence of their own. But there is nothing like a personal meeting to impress upon one’s interlocutor the gravity of the situation.
And, from Israel’s perspective, the situation if Iran fills the vacuum left by retreating Islamic State fighters would be grave.
Netanyahu spoke after the meeting to reporters about Iran’s intention of doing to Syria what it did to Lebanon, which is essentially take control of the country through the use of proxies. In Lebanon the proxies are Hezbollah’s, and in Syria it is tens of thousands of Shia militiamen from Iraq, and Pakistan and even Afghanistan, augmented by Iranian soldiers, already on the ground.
Israel, Netanyahu is telling Putin and a world preoccupied with other crises, from North Korea to Barcelona, won’t tolerate another Lebanon to its northeast.
Netanyahu hopes that knowledge of what Israel will do will impact Russia’s decisions regarding post-war arrangements in Syria.
Russia has spent billions of dollars, expended an enormous amount of political capital and even lost a few dozen men trying to keep President Bashar Assad in power.
If Israel is drawn into a war in Syria, it would greatly jeopardize the Assad regime.
Netanyahu, who has a good, strong working relationship with Putin, wants the Russian leader to ask himself one question as a result of this visit: Is it worth the risk to his massive investment? And the answer to the question will be largely dependent on how credible Putin views Israel’s threat, and whether he believes that Netanyahu would take action against the Iranians in Syria. Netanyahu made the trip to Sochi hoping to impress upon Putin that the threat is very real indeed.