Israel in dire need of policy in Syria

Will Russia allow its “frenemy” Iran to roam freely in Syria and do there whatever it wants?

FOREIGN MINISTERS Sergei Lavrov (C) of Russia, Walid al-Muallem (L) of Syria and Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran attend a news conference in Moscow in April. (photo credit: REUTERS)
FOREIGN MINISTERS Sergei Lavrov (C) of Russia, Walid al-Muallem (L) of Syria and Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran attend a news conference in Moscow in April.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘The Israeli planes deliberately created a dangerous situation for surface ships and aircraft in the area. As a result of the irresponsible actions by the Israeli military, 15 Russian servicemen have died.” That was the statement of the Russian Ministry of Defense issued on the morning of September 18.
The tone of the statement was sharp and cold, not what one would expect from a friendly state. In fact, it looked like the honeymoon was officially over, and reminded us of the darker periods of history between Israel and the USSR back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Some Israelis were caught by surprise. They felt like a cold shower was pouring over their heads. They saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveling to Moscow again and again, succeeding to maintain his great relationship with one of the strongest men on earth, Russian President Vladimir Putin – and they could not understand what went wrong.
Russia was now accusing Israel of “deliberate actions” meant to use the Russian IL-20 plane as a shield, blaming the IDF of lying and promising to take “severe measures” to punish Israel. But was the Russian move indeed that unexpected? And more importantly, how will this new reality affect Israeli security and change the situation in Syria?
Russia first
Nations have “no friends, only interests,” Charles de Gaulle once said. It’s quite clear that Russia and Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Syria could not be more different. Russia supports President Bashar Assad’s regime, which comes in a package with Hezbollah and Iran. Israel objects to any military presence of Iran in Syria. How strong are Syria-Iran ties? Well, Iran is heavily invested in Syria, military and economically, and after spending so many billions of rials and shedding so much blood – whether Iranian, Iraqi or Lebanese – it is certainly not going away.
Will Russia allow its “frenemy” Iran to roam freely in Syria and do there whatever it wants? Not necessarily, as relations between the states are quite complicated. Russian companies also plan to take a generous chunk of reconstruction contracts when the war is over and Iran is competition.
However, it seems that Moscow believes it would be better off handling the situation inside Syria by itself, without any Israeli interference. Until recently, when Assad’s regime was still fighting for its life, it was important that Israel focused solely on Iranian targets and did not interfere with Assad’s struggle against the rebels or terrorist groups.
Now, when Assad’s regime has retaken parts of Syria, Israeli strikes in Syrian skies have become an inconvenience. In the spring of 2018, Moscow had already indicated to Jerusalem that its actions in Syria were damaging to Russian interests. A few weeks ago, according to a scoop in Haaretz, Moscow sent a clearer message: “Please, stop”. The tragic IL-20 incident that was a result of the clumsy work of Syrian military personnel was the Rubicon that Russians needed crossed in order to say bluntly to Israel: “The rule of the game now had changed. Nothing personal, strictly business.” Russia is still interested in preventing a big war between Iran and Israel on Syrian soil, but it admitted in the past more than once that it could not and would not banish Iran from the country.
If anyone thought, the “personal friendship” between Putin and Netanyahu would be a significant factor in this regard, that Israel’s silence on Russia related international issues would help, or that Israel’s compliance with the fact that Russia didn’t recognize either Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations would make a difference – they were dead wrong. Russia cares primarily for Russian interests in the Middle East – sort of “Russia first.” How could anyone think otherwise?
How did we get there?
When discussing the Russian role in Syria and its decision to send its troops there in 2015, it’s important to recall that by that time Syria was in chaos and the US had intentionally decided to let it remain this way. There was no vision for Syria (nor is there one today), and the only desire that the last two administrations felt in this regard was to keep away and let others do the dirty work. So today, when John Bolton or Mike Pompeo excoriate Iran for its role in Syria, they should also think about the US role.
The American mandate there was limited from the beginning, and Iran’s presence was never highlighted or prioritized.
Both Obama and Trump focused on ways to squash ISIS, at the same time overlooking the other menace, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has become an important operator in Syria since 2012-2013, and the Russian presence that began in 2015 didn’t change this fact. Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah have been there together, fighting hand-in-hand for Syria’s future.
That being said, the US can afford a lack of vision in Syria. After all, it doesn’t have common borders with the country. But what is Israel’s excuse? How could Israel afford not to have a clear policy on Syria? For seven years the Israeli government was proud that Israel never interfered in the Syrian civil war, apart for occasional strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets.
Perhaps someone in the government thought that after Assad would win, with the help of the Russians and the Iranians, things will go back to normal, as they were prior 2011. That is the reason behind the Israeli decision not to advance ties with the tribal rebel elements on the other side of the border. True, there were supplies of humanitarian aid, and according to foreign publications, even some munitions transferred to them. But there never was an attempt to actively provide for a security belt on the Israeli-Syrian border that would ensure zero Iranian presence. Israeli allies on the Syrian part of the Golan were quickly abandoned when it became clear that Assad was winning the battle.
Israel watched passively as the American administration in 2013 drew red lines and then took them back, having difficulty deciding, because it never actually had a vision of what is the desirable situation that will provide security for Israel. Since 2015, Netanyahu has been relying upon his friend in the Kremlin, perhaps realizing that he missed a chance to influence the situation in Syria, while the Americans remained passive and could not help. President Trump’s statement that he would like to withdraw all troops from Syria certainly didn’t help.
What now?
The message Russia is sending Israel today is loud and clear: The rules of the game in Syria have changed. It doesn’t mean that Russia has turned into an enemy state. It is still a partner and at some point relations between Moscow and Jerusalem will gradually improve. Military coordination over Syria will also remain, although now it will look quite different. I believe that some things must change in Israel as well.
First, Israel must create an independent policy in Syria, working hard with the Americans, whose presence there will continue for now. This will continue “until Iran will leave Syria,” as President Trump mentioned during his address to the UN General Assembly this week. Overlooking Israel’s conflicting interests with Russia was a mistake that should not be repeated. It’s not enough to say, “We will not allow Iran to grow its presence on Syrian soil.” It is already there. It has been for the last few years. Now it’s time to use not only military means that can push Iran back, but also heavy diplomatic efforts and try to work out this situation with Israel’s strategic partners in the region and globally.
Second, Israel’s government that is usually so quick to accuse the European Union of being an “enemy” for building a couple of caravans in the Palestinian community of Khan al-Ahmar, must also be firm when Russia is voting against Israel at the UN Security Council, or when Moscow hosts Hamas delegations. Israel should also be firm when the Russian Ministry of Defense makes blatant, antisemitic accusations, or there is a wave of such accusations in the media. There is always a way to stand up for what is right in diplomacy. Now is the time to say: “Whatever happened in the past will not happen in the future.” There is a way of maintaining strategic relations with Russia without losing face and without betraying one’s principles.
Israel today is in dire need of new policies, ones which can both provide for its security and save its dignity.
The writer is a member of Knesset for Zionist Union and a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.