The Trump administration in Washington is not eager to deepen its involvement in Syria on the track Israel wants it to, having enough of a headache fighting terrorists in the region and trying to avoid any confrontation with Moscow. So Netanyahu gambled on Putin’s pragmatism and his gratitude to Israel for remaining a reliable partner during Russia’s deep rift with the West.
The Israeli prime minister arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday accompanied by his spy chief Yossi Cohen, the director of Mossad, and Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of Israel’s national security council – an indication of how seriously Israel took the meeting.
Netanyahu shared with Putin his deep concerns about the Iranian presence in the region, and pointed out that Tehran was on its way to controlling Iraq, Yemen and even Lebanon. “We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel,” he said, and “Israel opposes Iran’s continued entrenchment in Syria. We will defend ourselves with all means against this and any threat.” In other words, Israel will act unilaterally in Syria if it considers that its national interests are under threat.
Though the Russian president did not directly address Netanyahu’s remarks, his silence was much more eloquent. Russia listens and takes into account the positions of the players, but moves according its own interests, especially now when its stock is so high. The Syrian conflict has mostly ended, and in the way Moscow expected it to. Russia will now play a key role in determining Syria’s future.
For Israel, the vital interest is to exclude Iran from that process, giving Tehran no space to be involved. That will be impossible, since Iran is one of the guarantors of the existing de-escalation zones, alongside Turkey and Russia, and expelling Iran would inevitably lead to the failure of the peace process. Furthermore, Russia sees Iran in Syria as a constructive player, and wants it to stay on track. Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, said there was “real progress on the way to end that tragic war,” and that Russia knew the position of Israel toward Iran but believed Tehran was playing a constructive role in Syria.
On the same day that Russian and Israeli officials met in Sochi, the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoygu declared that the civil war in Syria had effectively ended thanks to the success of the de-escalation zones initiative.
If the appalling conflict in Syria can be said to have a winner, that winner is Vladimir Putin — and neither he nor anyone else is listening to Israel’s self-centered demands.
The visits to the region by US defense secretary James Mattis, presidential adviser Jared Kushner, Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell suggest that the US believes this too. Russia has achieved its mission in Syria in a relatively short time by splitting the moderate political opposition from armed militants, opening the way for a new Syria.
It is important to note that Netanyahu’s visit to Russia coincided with the launch of a joint Russia, US, Jordan de-escalation center to monitor the cease-fire in southern Syria that began on July 7. The agreement followed months of negotiations between the three countries and is a key step in the restoration of peace and stability to Syria.
Militarily, it has become crystal clear that the Syrian army has the upper hand, having regained control of the border crossing points with Iraq and Jordan, as well as Lebanon and Turkey. With many Syrian refugees returning from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, there are strong signals that Syria is getting back to normal. In terms of border issues, only Bab Al Hawa crossing point to Turkey in Idlib governorate in north-west Syria remains outside the control of the Syrian army. This would be the next step coming soon.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme