On July 11, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Moscow. He announced on the eve of his departure to Russia that this visit would play a pivotal role in the bilateral relations of the two countries in light of the ongoing Syrian debacle. It is clear what lies behind such statements – he came to complain about the so-called “enemies of Israel”, namely Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. He has been known for this little habit of his upon the geopolitical stage for quite some time. In this case, he is clearly going to try to convince Russian president Vladimir Putin that the ongoing presence of Iranian-backed forces and Hezbollah in Syria represents a major threat. In the process, he’s trying to push the Russian leader into striking a “deal” with US president Donald Trump in Helsinki. The deal, even though it’s not on the table yet, implies that the Pentagon withdraws its troops from Syria’s At-Tanf and transfers the area under the control of Damascus / Moscow in exchange for Moscow pledging its commitment to the removal of the Iranian military, detachments of Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian Shia militias from the regions adjacent to the Syrian-Israeli border. His ability to secure the deal is of paramount importance for both Netanyahu himself and the Israeli ruling elite, as Tel-Aviv was a step away from redrawing Syria’s south by permanently occupying the Golan Heights region, but those long-nurtured hopes have evaporated in the last couple of months.
Israel makes no secret of the fact that it had to fall back in the wake of a string of military victories by Syrian troops under the command of president Bashar al-Assad scored recently. In fact, Israel unequivocally recognizes this. However, Israel is interested in minimizing the imminent consequences of its own miscalculations, since there’s no real way of avoiding them completely. Therefore, Netanyahu has been making one visit to Moscow after another in a bid to play on the disagreements between Moscow, Damascus and Tehran, although his efforts have so far reaped little. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv seeks to get the Syrian government behind the negotiation table by asking Russia to help. Moreover, Tel Aviv is contemplating a far better deal for Damascus than the one that was signed back in 1974 on the repatriation of the Golan Heights between Damascus and Israeli troops. One could describe such attempts as historical if Damascus wasn’t fully aware of the fact that there’s no reason to even speak about such matters with Tel Aviv. No one is going to be fooled in Damascus these days by Israel trying to have the fate of the Golan Heights determined at the United Nations, since Syria is more than capable of reclaiming its own territory. Bringing Russia into such talks could lead to disputes between the allies, as Moscow’s interests may or may not fully correspond with the interests of the Syrian state on that matter, and the latter doesn’t seem to be too willing to test those waters.
Israel’s demand for an agreement on the separation of the conflicting forces from 1974 is an attempt to secure its gains by presenting them in a different light. Tel Aviv believes that its interests are to be taken into account even though it violates the sovereignty of the Syrian state, so it can only hope to fool Damascus into signing a legally binding agreement on its own terms. However, Tel Aviv has zero means of preventing the Syrian armed forces from reclaiming more and more land daily in the southwest of the country. At the same time, any changes that it can drag into into the agreement that was signed more than five decades ago may make Tel Aviv inclined to gamble with demanding even more concessions at the expense of the Syrian state, thus warming the appetite for similar treatment among other external players that have been sitting deep inside the eastern and northern provinces of Syria for quite some time now. The irony is that Israel is fully aware that Damascus has come out on top amid the Syrian war, which means that it will not be inclined to surrender what Tel Aviv failed to grab with all the military might of its allies and proxy armed groups. This means that it has nothing to put on the table, yet is still seeking ways of influencing Syria into taking the short end of the stick. This in many ways explains Netanyahu’s constant visits to Moscow, visits that are accompanied by similar trips conducted by a wide range Israeli political and intelligence figures, all made in the hopes that Israel will be able to achieve what it wants through Russia’s assistance.
And even though Israeli officials are finally beginning to face reality, they are still making visits to Moscow, in spite of the fact that that they are more than capable of foreseeing the outcome of such visits. In practice, Tel Aviv is begging Moscow to take its interests into consideration, which means that the actual situation is quite different from what Netanyahu is trying to present to us in his statements. There’s at least two reasons why Tel Aviv found itself knocking on the Kremlin’s doors:
- Israel is extremely limited in its ability to use military force against Syria or even threaten its use.
- It has come home to Tel Aviv that the US, which maintains both a direct and indirect presence in Syria, is not interested in defending Israeli interests with the use of force. On the contrary, Washington has been seeking ways for a settlement of the conflict amid the ongoing withdrawal of American troops from Syria
The absence of a military solution has pushed Tel Aviv towards seeking help from Washington, since it has a way of attaining the goals it would otherwise be unable to attain through manipulating the US into doing what it wants. However, with the loss of this second option, Israel was left with no choice but to seek ways of attempting to persuade Russia. However, each statement made by Israeli officials comes into a contradiction with the ones issued by Moscow. For example, one can come across a statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry, that stipulates that the ongoing presence of Iranian forces in Syria is completely legal, therefore one should not expect the number of troops to be reduced in the foreseeable future. Thus, it seems that Moscow has no intentions of pushing Iran out, neither from the vicinity of southwest Syria, nor from Syria as a whole.
It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu is going to achieve anything in Moscow, as the on-the-ground realities in Syria favor both Damascus and Tehran, as well as Moscow itself. Russia doesn’t seems to be listening to Israeli demands since it has secured both the military and political situation in Syria, which means the Pentagon is left with few options but to leave. And even the promises that were made previously on the back of a joint Israeli-Suadi-UAE plan to withdraw Western sanctions against Russia in exchange for concessions regarding the Iranian presence in Syria, are of little assistance in Netanyahu’s quest. Indeed, this plan was approved by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on the back of Trump’s election success, but Moscow doesn’t believe in Trump‘s desire to improve relations with Russia anymore, since no real steps in that direction have been made. Day after day we’re witnessing new sanctions being introduced, and Trump is helpless to do anything against a US Congress determined to disrupt any attempts of rapprochement between Washington and Moscow.
Sure, Trump is making a lot of diplomatic statements, while trying to squeeze Russia out of the gas and oil markets of Europe, drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran, all while making no concessions whatsoever. It would be naive to expect any form of a breakthrough from the Helsinki meeting, as Trump needs it, but Putin does not. These days Russia is no hurry. Things are going well in both Syria and Iran. When Trump did everything to ensure that none in Moscow would believe empty promises on his part, why should he be surprised now?
Pyotr Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”