Russian build-up in Syria puts Israel on the back foot

There is a saying, ‘misfortunes never come singly’. That must have been the thought on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu’s mind as he headed for Moscow Monday on what the Russians described as a 3-hour “short working visit” – a call on President Vladimir Putin at his residence in city suburbs for what a top Kremlin official forecast would be “a business and frank conversation” (read plain-speaking), and back to the airport on the return journey. We don’t know whether Putin hosted a lunch for ‘Bibi’.

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The Russian military build-up in Syria comes as a big setback to Netanyahu’s regional policies. And it comes immediately after the spectacular defeat he suffered in the campaign to kill the Iran nuclear deal.

In the normal course, the Syrian developments should have prompted Netanyahu to huddle together with the American president, but the White House has earmarked a slot for the Israeli leader in November. The Israel-US relations are in visible difficulty, and on top of it now, a cloud of uncertainty has appeared over Israel-Russia ties as well. It is a moment of reckoning for Israeli diplomacy.

Netanyahu’s office had said he would discuss with Putin “the stationing of Russian forces in Syria… (and) will present the threats posed to Israel as a result of the increased flow of advanced war material to the Syrian arena and the transfer of deadly weapons to Hezbollah and other terror organizations”.

But the Kremlin had entirely different ideas. A statement in Moscow said, “Urgent issues of bilateral cooperation and the international agenda are scheduled to be discussed. In particular, the sides are expected to exchange opinions on the issue of the Middle East peace process and the fight against the global terrorist threat.”

Surely, Russians knew Palestine issue was last thing on Netanyahu’s order of priority, but they gently let it be known to the Israeli side beforehand that Moscow’s military intervention in Syria to help the government fight the terrorist groups no matter what it takes is a well-thought out policy decision that was not open to negotiation.

Curiously, on the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for Moscow, Russian news agency carried a curtain raiser entitled What Does Netanyahu’s Blitz Visit to Moscow Aim to Accomplish? And it said among other things that Moscow does not regard the Hezbollah as a terrorist organization but that the Lebanese militant group is “assisting the Syrian military in its war against terror groups… including Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL”.

The commentary speculated that Netanyahu’s real purpose would be: to fathom the Russian intentions in Syria; to find out additional details about the Russian deployment; to dissuade Russia from giving advanced weaponry such as S-300 and S-400 missiles to Syria; and, to “coordinate” with Moscow so that no military clashes took place between the two countries on Syrian soil. (Israeli chief of staff Gen. Gadi Eizenkot accompanied Netanyahu to Moscow).

The Russian accounts of the conversation between Putin and Netanyahu on Monday freely acknowledged that the two countries disagreed on Syria. Netanyahu was quoted as saying to Putin that he had come to Moscow “to explain our position and do everything so there are no misunderstandings of our region or yours”. It was a subtle reference to Israel’s activities in Ukraine directed against Russian interests.

But it is unlikely that Moscow is even remotely contemplating a trade-off with Israel over Ukraine, where tensions are easing, thanks to growing proximity between Russia and the West. Looking back, was it really necessary for Israel to have jumped into the Ukrainian cauldron and caused annoyance to Moscow, without due consideration of consequences?

The impression conveyed by the Russian accounts is that Putin patiently heard out Netanyahu and showed “understanding” for Israel’s security concerns, but did not make any promises – except of course that Russian actions in Syria will be “very responsible” (as they have always been) and that the Israeli fears of a “second front” in the Golan Heights are far-fetched, because the Syrian government forces have their hands full and have no intentions to start a war with Israel.

Without doubt, Israel’s dealings with the al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria are known to Moscow. In a series of reports to the UN Security Council, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force documented numerous instances of Israeli military’s dealings with the radical Islamist groups on the Israeli-Syrian border of the Golan Heights.

Putin said last week, “We must put aside geopolitical ambitions, abandon the so-called double standards, the policy of direct or indirect use of certain terrorist groups for opportunistic purposes, including changes of government and regimes disliked by someone.”

The description fits Israel’s role in Syria rather aptly, and it stands to reason that Israel’s nexus with the radical Islamist groups in Syria will become – if it hasn’t already – a major element in the Russian policy calculus in the coming period.

No doubt, the Russian-Israeli relations are set to enter a complicated period. Russia, especially Putin, tried hard to keep the relations on an even keel, but the contradictions over Syria cannot be pushed under the carpet. In the final analysis, it all depends on what the scope of the Russian build-up in Syria is going to be in the coming weeks and months.

Conceivably, Israel will have to take certain difficult decisions. Syria’s open skies may not remain defenceless for much longer and the country may not present itself as a hunting ground for Israeli jets attacking targets with impunity. This is one thing.

Second, if Russia puts ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria at some stage – something that cannot entirely be ruled out – Israel faces a power dynamic in its neighborhood that has no precedents in all of its history. Simply put, a far superior power has arrived in the immediate neighborhood and life cannot go on as before.

Third, it cannot be ruled out that the Syrian government forces in coordination with the Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militia will make attempts at some point to reclaim the areas adjacent to the Golan Heights which have been under the control of the Israel-friendly al-Qaeda groups. If that happens, the security implications are going to be profound for Israel.

But then, it all depends on the peace process in Syria that is set to begin and the sort of transition that may take place. Russia is neither likely to intervene with Iran or the Hezbollah as regards their activities in the Golan Heights area nor is going to boost the Hezbollah’s capabilities.

But it stands to reason, though, that neither Iran nor Hezbollah is spoiling for a fight with Israel. On the other hand, Russia and Iran have coordinated their moves in Syria so far and Russia also has a line open to the Hezbollah. Therefore, taking into account the totality of the emergent Russian approach on Syria – and its dominant political and diplomatic thrust – Moscow can be expected to restrain the protagonists from exacerbating tensions with Israel.

Fourth, the Russian presence in Syria and the Russian-Iranian axis virtually put a full stop to any Israeli dreams of having a voice at the high table as regards the future of Syria. A fragmentation of Syria might be in the Israeli interests but the Russian intervention aims at preserving Syria’s unity and territorial integrity – and there is also an international consensus on that score. Put differently, Israel needs to learn to live with the Syrian neighbor it gets. Geography and politics cannot be wished away.

Israel would have hoped that there will be a stand-off between the West and Russia over the latter’s military build-up in Syria. But on the contrary, the West is pondering over the terms under which a constructive engagement with Russia becomes possible so as to bring about a transition in Syria very soon.

Quite obviously, the West is no longer insisting on President Bashar a-Assad stepping down later today as a precondition for the transition. Equally, the West has welcomed the Russian intention to join the war against the Islamic State.

What Israel probably overlooked in all this is that the Russian build-up in Syria has taken place against the backdrop of the massive refugee crisis that is threatening European security. Moscow correctly judged the shift in Europe’s priorities today and in diplomacy timing is always the essence of the matter. In sum, Moscow resorted to coercive diplomacy and its military dimension should not be exaggerated out of proportions.

Thus, Europe is nudging the US and Russia to strengthen the fight against the IS and on a parallel track to work together to kick-start a peace process in Syria. Clearly, the centrality of Russia (and Iran) has been conceded by the West – and openly acknowledged even by the US – in the search for a Syrian settlement.

Over and above, Israel should expect that a US-Iranian dialogue on Syria will commence next week in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session as part of the intensifying efforts to bring about a transition in Syria.

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