The Israeli prime minister’s visit to Moscow last week offered Israel and Russia an opportunity to ‘synchronize watches’ as a new phase in the Syrian war unfolds.
The visit was short and business-like. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Tel Aviv in the morning and was back in Jerusalem that same evening. But his meeting with President Vladimir Putin, their fourth since the Russian intervention in September 2015, was long enough to reaffirm the principles that have enabled both Russia and Israel to protect their core interests in Syria.
Not too long ago, the deployment of Russian air power in Syria and the collateral installation of its S-400 air defense system would have been seen by Israel as both a strategic threat and an unbearable constraint on its freedom of action. Instead, the dramatic Russian intervention that commenced in September 2015 proved an opportunity for Russia and Israel to manage—so far successfully—the destabilizing potential of such moves, and to establish ‘rules of the game’ that accommodate the interests of both parties. So far, this relationship is working. As Netanyahu explained soon after the Russian campaign commenced,
“Israel attacks whoever attacks it. We will not allow Iran to transfer deadly weapons to Hezbollah from Syrian territory, or at least we will do everything in our power to prevent it; and we will not allow Iran to open an additional terrorist front against us in the Golan."
Israel’s border with Syria, despite the commanding presence of ISIS among the opposition, remains the quietest front of the war. Netanyahu and Putin both look positively on growing Jordanian-Syrian coordination along the frontier, including the expansion of Syrian government control over the Nassir border crossing and the imminent reestablishment of a secure trade route south from the Turkish border to Jordan and the Gulf.
More significantly, in the strategic domain, Russian (but not Syrian) and Israeli aircraft have learned to share a crowded airspace in a manner that enables each to project power and defend their separate interests. For its part, Israel does not interfere with the Russian aerial campaign in the south against Assad’s varied opponents. Russia, despite its broad alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, has not encouraged or contributed to what have been so far muted efforts by its wartime allies to prepare a military infrastructure against Israel along the Golan frontier. And Russia watches benignly as Israel takes active measures to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah’s control.
Netanyahu’s lightening visit at this time is both a recognition and reflection of a new phase in the Syrian conflict, marked by the Russian coalition’s military victories in the north. Not without reason, Bibi fears that victories in the north will re-energize Iranian and Hezbollah’s attention on the Golan.
As the diplomatic endgame begins, Israel demands a decisive role in shaping the negotiating agenda for a postwar Syria—one that keeps the Israeli-occupied Golan off the table and mobilizes Russian and American support to keep Iran and Hezbollah out of the Syrian equation altogether, the Golan included.
“One of the most important issues we will discuss is Iran's attempt to make an agreement with Syria,” explained Netanyahu in Moscow. “With or without Syria's agreement, Iran will attempt to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, both on land and at sea.”
Netanyahu has already sought to win the Trump administration’s support for recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan as a fait accompli in any postwar diplomacy. He went into the meeting with Putin armed with what were certainly choreographed comments from Washington’s U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley demanding a deal that denies Iran and its proxies a postwar role in Syria.
Until now, the self-declared Iranian interest in extending the resistance front opposite Israel on the Golan has remained an aspiration rather than a reality, constrained both by Israeli countermeasures and the wartime requirements on other, more pressing fronts.
Despite their wartime alliance, Damascus will be keen to avoid becoming an Iranian vassal. In a postwar Syria, Damascus would have little interest in ceding a decision to go to war with Israel to Iranian-Hezbollah forces deployed along a Syrian Blue Line.
For its part, Moscow seeks a central place for itself in postwar Syria, including as a powerbroker massaging the conflicting interests of Israel and Iran. But it too has little interest in presiding over the consolidation of an Iranian-Hezbollah presence anywhere in Syria, let alone along the Golan front.
Nevertheless, while Russia can be expected to refrain from encouraging the destabilization of the Golan front, Putin has no intention of answering the antagonistic prayers and fears in either Tehran or Tel Aviv.
“Today, there is an attempt by Persia’s heir, Iran, to destroy the state of the Jews,” Netanyahu told Putin.
In his reply, Putin dryly noted that the events described by Netanyahu had taken place “in the fifth century BCE.”
“We now live in a different world. Let us talk about that now.”