Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017.
(photo credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS)
Russia has deployed Military Police to eight observation points on the Golan. For the first time, Israeli and Russian forces are directly across from each other at a border. This has the makings of a new strategic alignment in Syria, potentially reducing Iran’s presence and bringing stability, or the opposite – increasing tensions with Moscow and its rising power in the region.
Over the last five years as Russia deepened its involvement in support of its ally in Damascus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has navigated a complex conflict through high-level bilateral discussions in Moscow. This involves a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin that is based on many visits and discussions – and respect between the two countries and their interests.
Although Israel and Russia do not always see eye to eye on Syria, and although Russia has tensions with Jerusalem’s closest ally in Washington, a beneficial relationship has nevertheless been created.
During the conflict, this was built on de-confliction and understandings about southern Syria. Potential conflict was reduced and Moscow emphasized that it understood Israel’s concerns about Iran. But Iran is an ally of Bashar Assad and therefore a partner of Moscow in the Syrian war. It is also part of the Astana talks that have sought to advance some kind of an agreement in Syria between Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Israel is never part of these discussions; its dialogue about Syria is always one-on-one, either with Moscow or with Washington. Israel doesn’t speak to Tehran or Damascus, but it can make its views known through third-party channels. Reports indicate that this has happened as Israel uses a variety of public statements – and sometimes threats, private channels and kinetic power, including air strikes – to make its policies clear.
Israel and Russia have now reached an understanding regarding the 1974 cease-fire lines on the Golan. Israeli Ambassador to Russia Gary Koren met Russian journalists recently in southern Russia. “We coordinated the arrangement under which Russia pledged to make sure, as it were, that the Syrian Army will not cross the cease-fire line established under the 1974 agreement,” he said, according to the Russian news agency Tass. “It looks like everything is functioning for the time being.”
Jerusalem still demands that all Iranian troops be withdrawn from Syria. Alexander Lavrentiev, Putin’s special envoy to Syria, has indicated that Iranian forces and the militias linked to it have withdrawn 85 km. from the border. “There are no units of heavy equipment and weapons that could pose a threat to Israel at a distance of 85 km. from the line of demarcation,” he was quoted as saying.
With Russian observers on the Golan, the chance of chaos and instability directly in the border area is reduced. This is because it is in Moscow’s interest that Syria not be destabilized by Israeli retaliation for any sort of violation of the 1974 lines. In the first days after the Syrian regime returned to the border in July, there were scenes of jubilation. Assad’s image and government flags were waved from Quneitra. In addition, Syrian media reports that residents are returning to the border area. The concern is that Iran or Hezbollah may try to exploit this return.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was at the border area on Tuesday visiting with the Armored Corps on the Golan Heights and meeting with chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. He stressed that the Syrian Army is being strengthened and that the regime wants to fully control its territory. This was a way to indicate that the Assad regime is strong enough to control its own territory and therefore does not need Iran and Iranian-backed militias to help it control areas. The regime has leaned on Iran under the notion that it needed its ally to defeat the rebels and ISIS. But Liberman was asserting that now that the regime is strong enough, it’s time for the Iranians and all their tentacles to go home.
At the Knesset on Wednesday, Eisenkot said the IDF was better prepared than it has been in the last 20 years. Israel has a military edge over its opponents and has developed the best weapons systems to defend against threats and strike the enemy.
Nevertheless, Israel’s enemies will always seek new ways to carry out attacks. To restrain them, Jerusalem can work judiciously with Moscow and also with Washington to prevent the next war.
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