Netanyahu is not ignorant of the silent US-Russian consent to Tehran reaping the fruits of its investments in Syria since it intervened there six years ago, by consolidating its geographical control of the corridor dubbed the “grand prize.” Netanyahu has vowed that Israel is ready to act unilaterally to prevent Iran from making permanent its expanded military presence in Syria. But realistically, he is aligning his country to engage in future deals on Syria, especially in the context of the grand bargain between the US and Russia, and the Iranian dimension in the Arab geography and the regional balance of power.
The benefits reaped by those who invested in the Syrian war, such as Iran, will include profits from lucrative reconstruction. However, Tehran has more extensive investments in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, with the primary aim of guaranteeing a major role for it in the future of the Middle East and in the emerging regional equations and alliances. Israel for its part is fully confident that US-Russian accords will always take into account Israeli interests, including guaranteeing its military edge and its security. But what prompted Netanyahu to meet Putin for the second time this year was his understanding that the Russian leader now holds the keys of the Middle East, with Washington’s consent.
The Iranian expansion concerns Israel, but there is no panic. Netanyahu is reconfiguring his country’s position to be present in the deals, bargains and settlements being made in the Arab geography, from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Turkey and Iran are doing the same, but the difference is that they are operating on the ground to ensure they are part of the triangle of guarantors sponsoring de-escalation alongside the key Russian player, all with an American green light. Meanwhile, the majority of Arab countries are all but absent from these arrangements, albeit they are moving to have a presence in Iraq after a long absence. The Gulf countries are preoccupied with the Yemen war and the Qatar crisis. Jordan has no standalone role in Syria at this stage, after the Gulf roles in Syria receded. Egypt is playing a Russian-ordained role in Syria, through its influence with some opposition figures.
It is Russia that is leading on the ground, politically and strategically, with signs of American consent to its role. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is well versed in matching diplomatic tone to developments on the ground. He is a pragmatist who using his personal “charm” to influence the psychology of both friends and foes in negotiations and deal making. Today, Lavrov finds himself dealing with an issue he is loath to, that of the Syrian opposition. He is holding contacts with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to push forward efforts to form a unified opposition delegation from the so-called Cairo and Moscow opposition platforms, and the Higher Negotiations Council. The failure of the meeting of the Syrian opposition platforms in Riyadh this week is mainly due to their differences over the fate of Bashar Assad in the political process that follows the conclusion of the war. In fact, this causes more resentment by Lavrov toward the Syrian opposition, for which he has little respect save for the Moscow-based factions. Indeed, for Russia, Assad’s fate is not now a priority, but rather, the facts on the ground.
At this juncture of the Syrian war, Russia is focusing its efforts on reaching an agreement with Turkey to establish a fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib. Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov held consultations recently with his Turkish counterpart Sedat Onal to reach an agreement. Lavrov has said talks continue with Turkey and Iran regarding the situation in Idlib, but said there were “complications.” In truth, these complications are related to Iranian-Turkish knots, which vacillate between sectarian and ideological hostility, and a compulsory partnership as part of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian triangle guaranteeing cease-fires as well as efforts to contain Kurdish ambitions.
On the ground, Russia has trained its eyes on Deir Ezzor, which it believes is a crucial battle in the war on Daesh. For its part, Iran is focused on the Syrian desert, carving out a corridor to consolidate its arc or crescent. Turkey’s priority is to prevent the Kurds from making permanent their gains in Syria close to the Turkish border.
Israeli threats of unilateral action in response to Iranian expansionism are meant for public consumption only. In fact, Israel’s aims are much more strategic.
The Kurdish element is common to both Turkey and Iran, despite denials by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, following remarks by Erdogan suggesting a Turkish-Iranian agreement on a possible military move against the PKK and its allies inside Iran. Erdogan reportedly wants to establish a regional alliance that would include Turkey, Iran, and Iraq to contain the Kurdish ambitions.
Currently, these ambitions are represented by the insistence of Kurdish leaders in Iraq on holding a referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan Region, the timing of which has been opposed by the US. But Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, has insisted he would not postpone the vote for “a single minute,” even as US defense secretary James Mattis was affirming the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Iraq, and US envoy to Baghdad Brett McGurk was suggesting the referendum would be catastrophic.
Many friends of the Kurds who understand their aspirations have warned against taking the initiative to partition Iraq if they insist on holding the referendum on September 25. Others have expressed fears of the impact of Kurdish secession on the anti-Daesh strategy in Iraq. Following Mattis’s visit to Iraq, a statement issued by Barzani’s office hinted at some flexibility. A spokesman for Barzani said the referendum would not be postponed without an alternative, which could be international guarantees signed by all sides, especially the Iraqi government and the US, and even Turkey and Iran, setting another date for the referendum and pledging to respect its results.
The positions of the Trump administration and the US superpower no doubt have an important effect. However, regional confidence in Washington is steadily declining, after it reneged on promises and pledges for the sake of immediate US interests. No one feels safe in the American wagon, be they the Kurds, Turks, Iranians or Arabs. Even Israel, the US’s spoilt child and permanent ally, finds itself compelled to engage with Russia because the climate in the US is ravaged by divisions, contradictions and inconsistency.
Washington is the ally of the Kurds in the fight against Daesh in Syria. But as soon as Daesh and similar groups are defeated in Syria and Iraq, the Americans, Russians and international envoys claim foreign forces and militias will have no logical basis to stay behind. Thus, voila, the Syrian war and Iraqi war, they claim, will end, the land will be liberated from terrorism, and the two countries will be ready for a political process, a new constitution and power sharing. That is what they claim, but as to the reality of what they are doing, the answer is on the ground, in the Arab geography.
Reining in or curbing Iran’s project in the Arab geography all the way to Israel’s borders was the main headline of Netanyahu’s visit to Russia, while an Israeli intelligence delegation took the same message to Washington. They both returned with reassurances based on the “logic” that the military pretext for Iranian intervention will end once Daesh is defeated, to be followed by some form of Iranian-Israeli accords guaranteed by US-Russian partnership.
Part of these accords is currently taking shape in the Golan Heights, where Iran and its militias have been pushed back several kilometers away from the border. Israel wants to perpetuate the facts on the ground, to swallow the entire Golan and end any Syrian demand for its return, whether through negotiations or bargains. Recently, Israel’s ambassador in Moscow mocked those who still talk about returning the occupied Golan to Syria, suggesting any talk about the issue is little more than a joke to Israel.
However, Israel wants strategic American and Russian guarantees beyond pacifying the Syrian front and the Lebanese front through expanded international peacekeeping forces that would preclude any war scenario. Israel wants guarantees based on the new Israeli notion that Iran now has borders with Israel, but not vice versa.
Such international strategic guarantees require bilateral accords between the two strong players in the regional balance of power, Iran and Israel. And this is exactly what Netanyahu was seeking in practice when he visited Putin in Sochi, regardless of the remarks meant for media consumption about moving unilaterally to prevent Iranian expansion in the Arab geography.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham