Because of the approaching elections, most Israeli newspapers these days resemble election pamphlets, not always in the best of taste, more than they do channels of information – with the result that they barely covered, for instance, this month’s important meeting in Moscow between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin. As reported, the main topic on the agenda was Iran’s extensive activity in Syria. Given that Russia’s establishing itself in the region has become what looks like a permanent or at least long-term reality (where the czars and the Soviets failed, Putin succeeded), while America’s presence, like the face of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, is gradually disappearing – Moscow is now a central player in any scenario in this respect.
Nuclear-going and missile-developing Iran, actively pursuing its goal of creating a strategic corridor toward the Mediterranean, and enhancing the capabilities and activities of its proxies such as Hezbollah, is Israel’s principal and immediate security threat. In response, the Netanyahu government has taken, over the last few months, multi-faceted actions to prevent the formation of an Iranian front in Syria. These actions, in militarily terms, have had considerable success at this stage, forcing Tehran to withdraw the Revolutionary Guard’s al-Quds units from their main headquarters at Damascus International Airport, and according to the media, also the supply centers there that Iran used to reinforce Hezbollah and other Shi’ite groups in Syria and Lebanon.
This, however, is not the end of the story, and Russia’s potential role in the follow-up cannot be ignored. Thus it may be assumed that the issues addressed by Netanyahu during his meeting with the president of Russia were not just referring to the Golan front, but also to Syria as a whole. Relations between Russia and Iran with regard to Syria are based on shared, not necessarily long-range, interests – which both see as mutually beneficial for the moment. But there are also opposing interests, e.g., relations with the Assad regime and the part which Moscow and Tehran respectively intend to play in Syria’s economic reconstruction.
Russia’s attitude toward Israel’s strategic aims, and specifically its military operations in Syria, is therefore affected by different and sometimes conflicting factors. Like Iran, it wants to strengthen the Assad regime, but not as an exclusive client of Iran. According to some sources, Moscow may not even be unhappy with the Israeli operations against Iran, provided they don’t jeopardize its direct interests or endanger Russian forces there. This was the case with the downing of the Russian spy plane by Syrian anti-craft missiles, for which Israel had been wrongly blamed by the Russian military, and which led to a temporary cooling of Russian-Israeli relations, which, as both sides agreed, is now behind us.
Russian-Israeli relations in the Putin era greatly differ from those in the Cold War period, when Israel and Syria were mainly pawns on the chess board of the East-West confrontation. Putin’s Russia strives to establish its standing in the Middle East, not at Israel’s expense, but rather by including Israel. This received tangible expression in the Moscow meeting was evidenced not only by the friendly atmosphere, but reportedly also by agreeing in principle to form a joint team to advance the goal of removing Iranian forces from Syria, as well as establishing practical agreements of coordination between the IDF and Russian forces in the Syrian arena, so as to prevent a recurrence of mishaps such as the one mentioned above.
That the news about the Netanyahu-Putin meeting aroused some nervousness in Iran was borne out by the fact that its Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi went out of his way to insist that Tehran’s ties with Moscow were strong. He shrugged off the report of Russian-Israeli coordination on a withdrawal of foreign (i.e., Iranian) forces from Syria as “psychological warfare.” Nor can it be ruled out that Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Zarif’s on-again-off-again resignation was also related to the above development.
Diplomatic history is sure to mark Netanyahu’s act of balancing Israel’s fundamental relations with America – with its pragmatic coordination with Russia on Syria, without the latter being perceived by Washington as negatively affecting its global interests – as major diplomatic achievements. And Israel is acting wisely in operating with full transparency toward the US in this and other respects, keeping in mind that the US is Israel’s long-term strategic and value-based ally, while Russia is an important and practical partner in dealing with certain particular issues.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador.