Netanyahu questioned for rejecting Russian deal to force Iran out of Syria

Israeli premier dismissed offer primarily due to his vehement opposition to the partial lifting of American sanctions on Tehran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Opposition lawmakers that sit on Israel’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee are demanding answers regarding a Russian letter outlining a quid pro quo deal for the removal of Iranian troops from Syria in return for sanctions relief on the Islamic Republic. The Russian missive reportedly was delivered in September to Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, with a view to enhancing relations between Moscow, Washington and Jerusalem through a “grand bargain” on Iran and Syria.
Notably, the proposal was made prior to a sharp deterioration in Israel-Russia ties due to the downing that same month by Syrian soldiers of a Russian reconnaissance plane, an incident the Kremlin nevertheless blamed on the Israeli military which minutes earlier had conducted a nearby aerial assault targeting an Iranian weapons depot.
Accordingly, it is unknown whether the Russian offer was kept on the table or retracted amid resulting tensions.
"Israel has constantly asked Russia to apply pressure on the Iranians to end their military operations in Syria, and for the Kremlin to comply it needed something in return," Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog, previously head of the Israel Defense Forces' Strategic Planning Division, conveyed to The Media Line.
"One of the conditions was a reduction in sanctions on Iran, in addition to the conditional removal of US forces from Syria. But because Israel pushed so hard for the American financial penalties it would have been politically untenable for [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to backtrack."
Indeed, Israeli media reported that the premier rejected the plan out-of-hand, foremost because he views US sanctions as the primary vehicle through which to curb Iran's expansionism and induce the mullahs to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement, from which Washington withdrew in May.
The Russian overture has assumed greater significance in the wake of President Donald Trump's decision to unilaterally vacate Syria, which analysts near-uniformly contend will greatly diminish the ability of both the US and Israel to influence developments on the ground. Additionally, critics note that the Islamic State has not yet been defeated and that the American withdrawal will decrease the White House’s leverage in its ongoing effort to thwart Tehran’s "malign" regional activities and potential nuclearization.
"The Iranians cannot be evacuated from Syria by force but the regime might come to its own conclusion that a minimal drawdown is in its interest not only because of Israeli military actions but also due to internal pressure," Sima Shine, former deputy director general of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs in charge of the Iran file, related to The Media Line.
"In the long-run, the question is whether the Russians and [Bashar] al-Assad want the Iranians to stay, especially as the latter becomes more secure in his position. For now, though, there is unlikely to be any changes in Tehran's deployment, especially considering the conflict is not yet resolved."
Given Monday's dissolution of the Israeli parliament, Shine notes that the exact details in the Russian letter may never publicly be revealed. "Irrespective," she stressed, "Moscow likely knew that such a deal would be discounted because it demanded something totally contradictory to the position of Israel's prime minister."
On the backdrop of changing realities, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot this week vowed to continue conducting cross-border missions targeting Iranian assets. “The [US move] should not be exaggerated,” he asserted, adding that “for decades we have dealt with this front alone [and] that’s also how it has been over the past four years during the American and Russian presence [in Syria].”
For his part, Netanyahu suggested that Israel could, in turn, expand its operations in order to uphold its “red lines” of inhibiting the Islamic Republic from establishing permanent military infrastructure in Syria and from transferring advanced weaponry to its Hizbullah proxy in Lebanon.
While most Israeli government officials have refrained from publicly criticizing the White House, local television quoted one diplomatic source as saying that, “[President] Trump threw us under the wheels of the semi-truck of the Russian army.”
In hindsight, then, "what the Russian letter suggests is that President Trump could have received concessions for departing Syria that also would have benefited Israel," Brig. Gen. Herzog concluded.
"Now, it looks like he gave away something for nothing."
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