Though he hasn’t been present there, the spirit of Israel’s prime minister hovered all over the summit meeting between the US and Russian presidents in Helsinki in mid-July. Benjamin Netanyahu worked laboriously mobilizing all his influence in Washington to persuade Donald Trump to meet Vladimir Putin.
The two leaders have mysterious relations that are unfolding as a special investigation of former FBI director Robert Muller into alleged Russian meddling in the last US presidential elections is progressing. Trump and Putin were scheduled to discuss international matters from North Korea to the Russian occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine to the trade wars declared by Trump and the conflicts in the Middle East.
The Israeli prime minister, however, is mainly interested in two topics: Iran and the civil war in Syria. He needs both leaders to back his policy on these fronts.
On July 11, four days before the summit, Netanyahu was set to meet Putin and sit next to him in his private box at a Moscow soccer stadium watching together one of the two World Cup’s semi-finals.
It will be Netanyahu’s 10th meeting with the Russian leader in the last three years. He has more Putin's hours than any other leader in the world.
The frequency and urgency of his encounters with Putin are a result of the fact that the Syrian civil war appears to be reaching its end and the army of President Bashar Assad is on its way to regain its position along the Israeli border on the Golan Heights.
Israel's interests are to allow the Syrian army to return to its posts along the border as mandated by the 1974 agreement on "Disengagement of Forces" between the two sides, which ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War, while preventing any presence of Iranian, Lebanese Hezbollah or Shi’ite militias in undefined areas near the border.
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After seven-and-a-half years of violence and bloodshed, including the use of chemical weapons, the death toll among Syrian government forces, opposition forces and civilians is estimated by UN and civil rights groups to be more than 500,000. As of December 2017, approximately 13.1 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, with 6.3 million people displaced internally, and an additional 5.4 million registered refugees, making the Syrian situation among the largest humanitarian crises in the world.
Throughout the war years, Israeli policy remained more or less unchanged. Though some of the Israeli intelligence estimates were wrong (“Assad will be toppled within three weeks,” then- defense minister Ehud Barak predicted in 2011), the policy of non-intervention and not taking sides was consistent, with a few minor exceptions.
The Israeli “red lines” set by Netanyahu and the three defense ministers who served under him during this period – Barak, Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Liberman – consisted until a year ago of the following.
• To ensure the peace on the Israeli side of the border by responding to any violation of its sovereignty, deliberate or errant, by the Syrian army or rebel groups.
• To provide humanitarian aid to the villages next to the border, thus ensuring their gratitude and minimizing their incentives to act against Israel. So far, Israel has treated in its hospitals 3,500 victims, many of them children and women, and supplied more than a hundred tons of medical aid, food, clothes and tents worth nearly $100 million, which mostly was financed by contributions from evangelical communities in the US.
• According to foreign reports, the “good border” relations also included a supply of light weapons, ammunition and communication gear to the moderate, national-secular rebels groups near the border. In return, according to these reports, Israel, gleaned good intelligence on what was happening in Syria and beyond.
• To secure the safety of the Syrian Druze community (roughly half a million people), in order to calm down Israel’s own small Druze community (about 120,000), whose members serve in the Israeli armed and security forces and are considered loyal citizens of the Jewish state.
• To crush by military force efforts by Iran and Hezbollah to create a terrorist infrastructure on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
• To conduct air strikes and demolish transfers from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah of sophisticated weapons.
These goals were more or less achieved by a wise policy of the Israeli military and government by employing the tactics of a tightrope dance that combined determination, sensitivity and caution.
Even the arrival of the thousands of members of the Russian contingency and especially its air force and state-of-the-art anti-aircraft batteries didn't stop Israel from preserving and enhancing its national interests. This was possible by establishing direct “hotlines” between Hmeimim Air Base in northwestern Latakia, where Russian headquarters is located, and the IDF and Israel Air Force headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The occasional talks between Israel and Russian officers helped “deconflicting” and the prevention of dog fights between Israeli and Russian pilots. On top of that, in his rounds of meetings with Putin, it seems that Netanyahu obtained from the Russia leader the license to almost freely operate in Syria as long as targets were not fully identified with the Assad regime.
But a year or so ago, Israel’s red lines were redefined and extended. While all the above interests are still in place, Israel has added a more important goal: to remove the presence of Iranian, Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias as far as possible from the Israeli border.
Netanyahu and Liberman have stated time and again that Israel would not tolerate any Iranian or pro-Iranian presence in the entire country of Syria. But even the top Israeli political and military echelon know that this is an unachievable goal.
A few weeks ago, Russia announced that its official position is that when the war is over, “all foreign forces” will have to leave Syria. Israel was satisfied and encouraged by this statement.
Nowadays there are Russian, Iranian, Turkish and American troops helping either the Assad regime in its war against the defeated ISIS, or Kurdish rebels (supported by 2,000 American troops) fighting against Turkey and aiming to create an autonomous. In early July, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov redefined his government’s position by saying that it would be “unrealistic” to ask Iran to leave or withdraw all its forces from Syria.
So far, the IAF struck Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria with impunity. Israeli cabinet ministers and high-ranking IDF officers told me they assume that it is still in the Russian interests to weaken Iranian presence in Syria. Nevertheless, they understand that it will be very difficult to achieve a total withdrawal of the Iranian, Hezbollah and Shi’ite contingents from Syria.
“Our flight policy in Syria” is about to change, they added. Thus, Israel will have to settle for less.
Israel's real new red lines are now limited but much more important strategically. They aim to push Iranian troops and their allies 50-60 kilometers from the border, and to persuade Putin and via him Syrian President Bashar Assad, to prohibit the deployment of Iranian missiles and air defense systems on Syrian soil. If these goals are reached, Israel will allow and even encourage the return of the Syrian army to its 1974 positions along the border, so long as it respects the buffer zone (up to 10k from the border) and its limitations regarding a no-fly zone and the number and size of tanks and heavy artillery to be deployed in the area.
With the imminent return of Assad’s forces, the United Nations troops known as UNDOF (UN Disengagement Observer Force) will also return. At its peak, the force consisted of 3,000 soldiers from more than dozen nations. But because of the war, UNDOF was reduced to 1,000 troops now led by an Indian general.
Assad is well aware of the destructive power of Israel. He wants to consolidate his rule all over Syria and restore stability. But he is also a weak leader who owes his power to Iran and Russia. Israel can ruin his “party.” Nevertheless Netanyahu can’t solely rely on the logic of Assad, who has to be yet released from the Iranian grip.
Israel needs Putin and Trump, who hasn't made up yet his mind yet on whether to let the US troops stay or leave, and whether to help Assad and Iran understand the new emerging reality.
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