Syrian opacity

The open clash between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin over what to do in Syria has already eclipsed all other issues at the UN.

US President Barack Obama addresses United Nations General Assembly (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama addresses United Nations General Assembly
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The nations of the world are gathering this week in New York to attend the United Nation’s 70th General Assembly. The open clash between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin over what to do in Syria has already eclipsed all other issues.
And this very public clash puts Israel in an uncomfortable position as it attempts to maintain a policy of opacity regarding the events unfolding in Syria.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly on Monday morning, Obama rejected the idea of Bashar Assad remaining in power as part of a negotiated settlement in Syria.
The notion of partnering with “tyrants like Assad who drop barrel bombs on innocent children” is out of the question, Obama said, adding that the US is willing to “work with any nation, including Russia and Iran” to end the conflict in Syria.
“There cannot be after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the status quo,” Obama said. “Realism dictates that compromise will be required. Realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader.”
Meanwhile, Putin, who has backed Assad since the beginning of the conflict, argues that supporting his government is the only way to effectively battle ISIS.
In his speech before the UNGA, Putin reiterated this theme saying, “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”
The very public tension between Obama and Putin places Israel in a sensitive situation. While the US remains Israel’s most important ally – and the single most powerful nation in the world – Russia’s increased military involvement in Syria has forced Israel to enter into high-level talks with Russia to protect Israeli interests.
A Channel 2 report following last week’s meeting in Russia between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin illustrates precisely how Israel is stuck between two competing interests. Netanyahu reportedly told Putin during the meeting that Israel could live with Assad remaining in power.
Attempts by other news outlets, including Army Radio, to receive from the Prime Minister’s Office verification or denial of the Channel 2 report were unsuccessful. The Israeli discomfort is understandable.
Any definitive statement on the Assad regime – whether for or against – hurts Israel’s interest. That’s why Israel has consistently maintained an intentional policy of opacity vis-à-vis the events in Syria.
This is not to say that Israel does not have interests in Syria. On his visit to Putin’s residence near Moscow last week, Netanyahu took with him IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Gadi Eisenkot and other high-ranking military officers.
The Russians agreed to set up a joint working group with Israel to coordinate their Syria-related activities in the aerial, naval, and electromagnetic arenas, a senior defense source told The Jerusalem Post’s military correspondent, Yaakov Lappin.
Israel wants to prevent the smuggling of high-quality Russian and Iranian arms from Syria into Hezbollah-controled southern Lebanon. According to foreign news agencies, Israel has carried out a number of attacks on Syrian targets as part of an attempt to protect its northern border.
Israel wants to avoid a situation in which Russian troops stationed in Syria are accidentally targeted.
At the same time, Israel wants to maintain a high level of military and intelligence coordination with America. And ultimately, because Russia is aligned with Iran and Hezbollah in defending the Assad regime, the Jewish state cannot be an open supporter of keeping Bashar Assad in power.
During the past four and a half years since the civil war in Syria began, Israel has worked hard to maintain a policy of opacity. This is becoming increasingly difficult as Russia and the US openly clash.
The US, Russia, and Israel, however, all have a common interest in seeing stability restored to war-torn Syria. Toppling the Assad regime without first putting in place a transitional government capable of protecting Alawites, Druse, Kurds and other minorities is a recipe for disaster. This is a principle that all sides can agree.