Netanyahu won a battle in convincing Moscow to coordinate on military action in Syria. But Putin is winning a larger war: recognition of Russia’s growing influence in the Mideast.
The last time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Moscow was in 2013 for a two-pronged mission: to lobby against a nuclear deal with Iran and convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to cancel the planned sale of advanced Russian air defense systems to Tehran. Netanyahu was unable to change Putin’s mind on the Iran deal, but the visit postponed the delivery of the Russian weaponry.
On Monday, with Russia once again in a position to impact Israeli security in the Middle East, Netanyahu returned to Moscow. Only this time, the stakes were considerably higher: The Iran deal has been signed, and the Kremlin is building up its military in northwestern Syria to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime and fight the Islamic State.
“Iran and Syria have been arming the extremist Islamic terrorist organization Hezbollah with advanced weapons, aimed at us, and over the years thousands of rockets and missiles have been fired against our cities,” Netanyahu said before his three-hour meeting with Putin.
Israel fears the Kremlin’s buildup could further escalate the Syrian civil war and embolden Iran and Hezbollah, its two greatest foes in the Middle East, both of which have joined Moscow in supporting Damascus. Amid uncertainty over Russia’s role in Syria, Netanyahu’s visit is meant to prevent a scenario in which the Israeli army and Russian forces accidentally fire at each other. The Israeli prime minister also seeks assurances from Putin that advanced weapons in Syria won’t be used to help arm Hezbollah, with whom Israel fought a devastating war in 2006.
“Netanyahu has two red lines in Syria: If it’s fired upon, it will fire back, and if it sees hardware going to Hezbollah, it will hit them,” David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, told Foreign Policy.
As it turned out, the prime minister didn’t leave Moscow empty-handed. After Monday’s meeting, Netanyahu said Israel and Russia will establish a coordination mechanism to prevent clashes between their forces on the Syrian border. “This is very important for Israel’s security, and this is the first clear outcome of this conversation,” Netanyahu told reporters.
From Moscow’s perspective, Russian involvement in Syria and its expanded military support for the Assad regime is a key part of a longstanding effort to project power in the Middle East. Easing Israeli security concerns plays into Moscow’s heightened role.
“Putin clearly savors the idea that he can restore some of Russia’s former splendor on the global stage, especially in the Middle East,” Makovsky said. “But if Russia is going to be in the region, Putin needs to set ground rules with Israel.”
Despite their conflicting views on Palestine, Iran, and other Middle East tension points, Israel and Russia maintain good relations. Netanyahu is hoping to press Putin into keeping Israeli security interests in mind as Moscow expands its role in the region.
“It’s a quid pro quo relationship,” Ariel Cohen, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told FP. “Both countries are very pragmatic with their security.”
Israel has stayed mostly neutral in the Syrian war, but the Israeli air force is believed to have carried out more than a half-dozen airstrikes in Syria against shipments of weapons from Damascus bound for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Russia does not directly sell arms to Hezbollah, but Moscow is the Assad regime’s main weapons supplier and both Damascus and Tehran have transferred Russian weapons to Hezbollah in the past.
In addition to tanks and armored personnel carriers deployed by Moscow at a Syrian air force base south of Latakia, the Russian military presence now also includes surface-to-air missiles and combat aircraft, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday. Syrian government forces are being trained on the new Russian hardware, and if Damascus decides to re-transfer the weaponry to Hezbollah, Israel’s defenses could be threatened.
In the past, Israel and Russia have managed to agree on security issues through concessions to one another. Israel halted military supplies to Georgia after a war in 2008 with Russia. In exchange, Moscow shelved plans to supply the S-300 air defense system to Iran and Syria.
In addition to security, both countries have deepened their relationship since the fall of the Soviet Union, when Moscow was hostile towards Israel. The arrival of more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union has seen both trade and tourism boom between the two countries, and Russia is Israel’s top oil supplier. Putin has also visited Israel twice, once in 2005 and again in 2012.
Israel also has remained neutral in the Ukraine conflict, refusing to support American and European efforts to denounce Russia’s annexation of Crimea or join the Western sanctions regime against Moscow.
However, warm relations with Israel has not prevented Russia from supporting Iran and Syria — or stopped Moscow from putting the S-300 sale back on the table. Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, visited Moscow in July to coordinate Russian and Iranian support for Assad. Moreover, Russian officials now say they expect to agree to terms on the delivery of the S-300s to Iran by the end of the year, though it is unclear when it will go ahead.
After the Kremlin announced plans to deliver the missile defense system to Tehran in April, Netanyahu called Putin to protest, but after some initial harsh words, Israel backed down its rhetoric.
“Israel has always been cautious about antagonizing Russia,” Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute and a former U.S. intelligence official, told FP. “Ultimately, Israel knows it can’t drastically affect Russia’s behavior. But by playing the Kremlin carefully, Israel can still protect its more narrow security interests.”
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