What Netanyahu wants from Putin

What Netanyahu wants from Putin

When a 'peace deal' is imposed on Syria, the Israeli leader wants Iranian forces and allies to be sent home.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 9, primarily to discuss the situation in Syria. It was not the fate of Bashar al-Assad that was on the top of Netanyahu’s mind.

The elephant in the room was Israel’s most powerful regional nemesis, Iran — and Tehran’s formidable proxy, the Lebanese Shiite armed group Hezbollah.

The Russian president gifted Netanyahu a copy of Roman-Jewish historian Josephus’s book The Jewish War, printed in Italy in 1526. Both leaders, of late, seem to have developed an affinity for each other — not surprising given their worldview. 

With its full-blown military intervention in Syria, including air strikes that have killed many thousands of Syrians, Russia turned the tide of the country’s brutal, six-year-old civil war decisively in favour of what remains of the Assad regime, which is also Iran’s primary ally in the Arab world.

Netanyahu noted: “Russia has made a very important contribution,” acknowledging Russia’s war in Syria, and its targeting of various armed groups in that country, including Islamic State (IS). But he also told Putin that Israel “does not want this terrorism to be replaced by the radical…terrorism led by Iran.”

In the past two decades, the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah ‘resistance axis’ has stood in the way of Israel’s total domination of the Levant, though Syria was often seen as the weak link in the chain.
In a mini-war in 2006, the Lebanese armed group managed to give Israel’s ‘invincible’ army a bloody nose, alarming decision-makers and military planners in Tel Aviv, while gaining widespread support in the Arab world.

However, it lost much of that support through its full-throttle intervention on the ground in support of Assad in the Syrian conflict, as the government in Damascus was widely seen to be waging a war against its own people. Iran and Hezbollah’s military support on the ground was key to Assad’s survival in the early-to-mid stages of the war.

Since the creation of the state in 1948, successive Israeli governments, instead of trying to achieve genuine peace with their neighbours, have indulged in efforts to destabilise and subvert them with the unquestioning support of US administrations.

However, Israel has faced a dilemma in the course of the Syrian civil war: On paper, Syria is an enemy state but Assad, and his father before him, ensured that the ‘Syrian front’ was more or less quiet. But, Israel does see Assad as an enabler of its very real enemies, Iran and Hezbollah.

‘Known devil’
The other part of the story is that Israel also fears an extremist takeover of Syria in the advent of Assad’s fall. An Islamist Syria is the last thing Israel wants. As far as Tel Aviv is concerned, Assad is the ‘known devil’. And it is in this context that Netanyahu’s meetings with Putin must be seen.

Essentially, what the Israeli leader wants from the Russian strongman is that when a ‘peace deal’ is imposed on Syria by Moscow, Iranian forces and their allies must be sent back home. Or they should, at the least, be kept well away from Israel’s borders, and from the Syrian territory it continues to occupy since 1967 — the Golan Heights.

Israel has ensured that there is sufficient coordination with Russian forces operating in Syria, given that with Moscow’s sophisticated air defences now present in Syria, the Israeli air force has lost the ability to attack targets at will in the country.

On its part, Russia seems to have turned a blind eye towards Tel Aviv’s periodic attacks on certain targets in Syria. Israel has hit these targets since the start of the civil war, claiming they were attacks on weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah.

For all its bombastic anti-Israel rhetoric, the Assad regime has not so much as fired a single round in Israel’s direction, prompting derision from its opponents, who ridicule the regime’s Arab nationalist narrative.

It is likely that Netanyahu is overestimating Putin’s influence over the Iran, a country that is known to take its sovereignty very seriously. Relations between Moscow and Tehran are guided by generally similar views on Syria, and by economic concerns, which include the sale of billions of dollars worth of Russian weaponry to the Islamic Republic.

Any frustration on the part of Israel about its ability to more meaningfully influence Moscow’s policy towards Iran will be tempered by the knowledge that Russia has re-entered the West Asia and North Africa arena in a dramatic way, and is here to stay.

(The writer is an editor at The Delma Institute, a foreign affairs research house based in the UAE)