Israel seeks pound of flesh in Syria, ‘nyet’ is the answer
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ‘working visit’ to Moscow last week had a key objective relating to the conflict in Syria — a demarche at the highest level with President Vladimir Putin over Iranian presence in that country. Before emplaning for Moscow, Netanyahu told his cabinet in public remarks,
- In the framework of a (future peace agreement) or without one, Iran is attempting to base itself permanently in Syria – either through a military presence on the ground or a naval presence – and also through a gradual attempt to open a front against us on the Golan Heights. I will express to President Putin Israel’s vigorous opposition to this possibility.
In characteristic style, he cornered Putin in his very opening statement as they sat down in the Kremlin,
- One of the things that unites us (Israel and Russia) is our common fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Substantial progress has been made over the last year in fighting radical Sunni Islamic terrorism led by ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and Russia has made a great contribution to this result and this progress. Of course, we do not want to see Shia Islamic terrorism led by Iran step in to replace Sunni Islamic terrorism.
The Russian readout faithfully quoted Netanyahu but left out Putin’s brusque response. The Kremlin later chose to convey via an RT report,
- Putin noted that those events had taken place “in the fifth century BC,” added that “we now live in a different world” and suggested discussing the actual up-to-date problems in the region.
In short, Putin urged Netanyahu to get real instead of digging up the ancient legend of an Iranian forefather’s attempt to eradicate the Jewish people. (RT) The Russians are familiar with Netanyahu’s style of functioning — his swagger and capacity to dissimulate. He was obviously hoping to complicate the Russian-Iranian relationship at a time when Moscow and Tehran are working to put together a Syrian settlement. Evidently, Putin saw through the ploy. (Moscow is preparing for an official visit by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.)
Netanyahu keeps playing up the Iran bogey to divert attention away from the Palestine problem. However, importantly in the current context, Israel wants a say in the Syrian settlement. Israel’s motivations here are complex.
Israel’s preference is that the al-Qaeda affiliates fighting in Syria, who are its proxies, should be allowed to retain the swathe of land straddling the occupied Golan Heights so that its annexation of the Syrian territory remains unchallenged.
Russia simply will not acquiesce with the presence of any al-Qaeda affiliate in any residual form on Syrian soil. In fact, Jordan is involved in talks with Russia, which appears to be geared to battle plans under preparation to evict the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda from the Jordan-Israel-Lebanon borderline. Israel is getting frantic that the Russian-Iranian juggernaut proposes to put its al-Qaeda surrogates shortly into the meat grinder.
The alliance with Iran becomes vital for Russia in the coming weeks and months before a complete destruction of terrorist groups on Syrian soil is achieved and the peace process reaches the home stretch. However, this does not mean that Russian-Iranian relationship is smooth as silk. There strong convergence of interests at this point, but, as Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour said on Saturday in Tehran,
- We will interact with the Russians to the extent that they cooperate with us and we will not be willing to cooperate with them when they are not willing to do so.
The two countries have their respective long-term objectives and agenda in a future Syrian settlement. Clearly, the Syria that emerges in a settlement can very well be a federated country. The US seems to be working toward a federal Syria and Russia may live with it as the realistic outcome of the brutal conflict. Thus, both US and Russia have dealings with Syrian Kurds whose top priority is the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria bordering Turkey.
Now, it is entirely conceivable that a federal Syria may overlap the ‘spheres of influence’ of foreign powers. Without doubt, the US intends to keep the military bases it has established in the two Kurdish cantons on the eastern part of the Euphrates in the recent years. Russia too has a big presence along western regions of Syria facing the Mediterranean coast and in the Damascus region. The Russian bases in Latakia and Hmeimim in Syria are on permanent footing.
Therefore, how the emergent scenario of federal Syria would grate on the Russian-Iranian relationship remains a ‘known unknown’. After all, Iran made huge sacrifices to defeat Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria. A report last week put the casualty figures of Iranians killed in the fighting as exceeding 2000 military personnel.
Read an analysis, here, by Frederick Kagan of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute – surprisingly realistic for an American ideologue – on the complex web that makes Russian-Iranian bonding a geostrategic imperative of our times.