Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sent shockwaves through Jerusalem on Tuesday when for the first time he publicly rebuffed Israel’s demand that Iran not be permitted to gain a permanent military foothold in Syria.
While discussing the recent ceasefire agreement for southern Syria brokered by Moscow, the United States and Jordan, Lavrov contended that it did not include a Russian commitment—contrary to American assurances—to prevent Iranian-backed fighters from operating in the Syrian Golan Heights close to the Israeli border. He further stressed that Russia had never promised to limit Tehran’s influence in Syria, which he described as legitimate.
“No one mentioned Iran or pro-Iranian forces,” Lavrov told reporters in reference to the formulation of the truce. “If we talk about pro-Iranian forces, somebody might be tempted to call the entire Syrian army pro-Iranian, and then what—it should surrender? In my opinion, it is wishful thinking.”
Israel has long pressed Moscow, the leading player in the conflict since militarily intervening on behalf of the Assad regime in September 2015, to create a buffer zone of up to 50 km in the Syrian Golan Heights in which Shi'ite proxies supported by Tehran would be banned. While a joint American-Russian statement announcing the deal called for “the reduction and ultimate elimination of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the [border region],” Jerusalem fears that such will only apply to radical Sunni rebels battling regime forces, as, in principle, Assad does not consider Iranian-backed troops as “foreign” given their role in effectively saving the Syrian leader.
News of the ceasefire deal came after the BBC published satellite photos purportedly showing the construction of an Iranian military base in Al-Kiswah, located just 14 kilometers south of Damascus. Israel has repeatedly conducted air strikes in both Lebanese and Syrian air space targeting such installations as well as arms convoys destined for Hezbollah, some confirmed by Jerusalem and others reported by foreign media.
This comes on the backdrop of recent confrontations
in which the Syrian army targeted Israeli warplanes conducting cross-border missions, and late last month fired five rockets into Israel in what Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman described as a deliberate act carried out by a Hezbollah cell at the directive of the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.
In response, the Israeli army struck three Syrian artillery positions, bringing into stark focus the fact that forces loyal to Iran and President Bashar Assad—who according to Liberman green-lighted the missile barrage—remain entrenched along the border.
Accordingly, Jerusalem finds itself on a potential collision course with Moscow, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated in the wake of Lavrov’s comments that the Jewish state will continue to act militarily in Syria when necessary in order to uphold its security. “[Iran] want[s] to create a permanent air, land and sea military presence, with the declared intent of using Syria as a base from which to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu affirmed. “We are not going to agree to that.… Israel will work to stop this.”
According to Danny Ayalon, Israel's former deputy foreign minister, the most important consideration is not whether Israel has a seat at the negotiating table but, rather, that it is able to defend its red lines. "Israel is certainly a major player and is treated as such," he explained to The Media Line, "and the fact that it was not pulled into the Syrian chaos is a testimony to the very responsible leadership by the prime minister, due to the country's deterrent capability as well as its close coordination with Russia."
"However, when it comes to a demilitarized zone along the Syrian border," he continued, "it is a must because any modicum of stability there requires that Israel's interests be taken into account and this was specifically and strongly conveyed to our best friend in Washington and our new friend in Moscow."
In this respect, it is no coincidence that a high-ranking delegation from the US National Security Council arrived in Israel this week to discuss Jerusalem's concerns over the truce deal.
US, Russia, Jordan reach ceasefire deal for southwest Syria (credit: REUTERS)
Daniel Shek, a former Israeli Ambassador to France agrees that "Israel's positions were partially taken into account in Syria, but that deal leaves Jerusalem in a position where it will have to be vigilant and cautious over a long period of time.
"On the other hand," he elaborated to The Media Line, "the whole Syrian situation is still so unsettled that Israel should probably wait and see what the end result is."
For his part, Ayalon believes that Israel's capacity to "defend itself, by itself" has factored into the overall equation. "There are many opposing interests in Syria and the situation is convoluted but if Israel sees Hezbollah or Iran assuming a permanent role in the Golan then there will be grave circumstances and the others know this."
Nevertheless, the limits of Jerusalem's diplomatic influence on issues that pit world powers against each other are evident. And while the Israeli government presses its case, at times its concerns are seemingly an afterthought in the process of forging agreements to its exclusion, but which otherwise affect it directly. This is true both for the recent ceasefire in Syria, as well as Netanyahu's failed intensive campaign against the Iran nuclear deal.
As regards the latter initiative, former US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed last week that Israel appealed to the Obama administration to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Speaking to the London-based Chatham House think tank, Kerry stressed that “every leader I met with in the region…[including then-Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak, personally, to my face, said, ‘You have to bomb Iran, that is the only thing they understand [there] and that is the only way you will stop them [from] having a nuclear weapon.'”
Despite Netanyahu's efforts to this effect, Washington promoted and eventually reached an accord with Tehran that has left its nuclear infrastructure intact.
Shek, however, contended to The Media Line that this was the result of Israel sidelining itself: "Netanyahu didn't want a deal at all and therefore attempts to include Jerusalem in the conversation were virtually rejected. Even so, some of the positions of Israel were still taken into account," he explained.
Kerry's comments came just days before Netanyahu addressed the same forum, during which he again slammed the atomic agreement
as a cover for Iran to eventually produce more than 100 nuclear weapons while continuing to sow regional strife. The Israeli premier, who publicly sparred with Kerry and then-US President Barack Obama over America’s approach to Iran, urged signatories to the deal to modify aspects of it in order to address Tehran’s ongoing ballistic missile program—which contravenes United Nations Security Council resolutions but not the nuclear agreement itself—as well as the so-called “sunset” clauses that will allow the Islamic Republic to freely advance its atomic activities once the accord expires.
As it turns out, the Trump administration appears more amenable to Netanyahu's positions, but this is likely attributable to the US president's own beliefs rather than the result of pressure applied by Jerusalem. A sympathetic Oval Office does not guarantee any shift at the State Department or greater resolve in Congress.
This tension is clearly evident in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; specifically, with regard to the construction of Jewish homes across the 1967 borders’ further complicated by the fact that Netanyahu was once an ardent opponent of Palestinian statehood, prior to his now-infamous speech at Israel's Bar Ilan University in 2009, where he endorsed the concept for the first time. The move not coincidentally coincided with the election of then-US President Barack Obama, who revived the moribund peace process into a central tenet of his foreign policy.
In this regard, Shek maintains that "Israel has independence and maneuverability and boxes above its [weight] class in the global arena. Israeli diplomacy is extremely present on the international scene specifically on regional issues. But there is a virtual worldwide consensus that opposes some of Israel's positions, especially concerning the territories in the West Bank."
By contrast, Ayalon stressed to The Media Line that with respect to the Palestinians, Israel has often acted in accordance with its interests, given that that the international community has never had the country's back. "David Ben Gurion said it best," he concluded, "it is not important what others say but what Israel does. And had [the Jewish state] succumbed to foreign pressure over the years it would not be here today."
At the United Nations General Assembly in September, Netanyahu described Israel as an emerging super power, and while Jerusalem has certainly matured into a regional player, it appears that the Israeli premier's statements were somewhat exaggerated.
"Israel is not powerful enough to do everything on its own and even if it was this is not a wise position to take," Shek affirmed. "An ongoing and healthy fruitful relationship with a number of allies is a prerequisite for maintaining Jerusalem's position in the present and future. At the end of the day, there will be things that the country will have to do on its own, but that is not a desirable position."
When asked whether it harms Israel that Netanyahu has for more than two years acted a de facto foreign minister, Shek retorted, "I believe it harms the country more that we have no foreign policy."
That said, it is one thing for Israel to have the ear of world capitals and have potentially ambiguous or non-conventional policies rejected; it is quite another issue to nevertheless be able to take matters into one's hands when necessary. Walking this tightrope is Israel’s lot, especially when Syria may be the next theater in which the interplay of this dynamic will be staged and where having the ear of our very few allies may prove definitive.
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