If remarks of Israeli prime minister Netanyahu were to be believed, the recently held meeting of US, Russian and Israeli National Security Advisers (NSAs) in Jerusalem was a ‘real diplomatic success.’ Netanyahu boasted this meeting off as the hallmark of Israeli-Russian cooperation towards establishing stability in the region. But the recent Israeli attack on Syria, coming in an utter violation of Syria’s territorial sovereignty, signifies that Netanyahu’s remarks were only a show-off and a usual Israeli bluster with no real substance to establish facts on the ground. The strike, quite the contrary, shows that deep-seated disagreements remain between Russia and Israel/U.S. and that these disagreements have a lot to do with Russia’s refusal to step away from Syria as well as Iran.
Russian condemnation of Israeli attack reveals that all is all is not well between the two countries. Condemning the attack, Lavrov said:
“…the necessity to respect and execute the UN Security Council’s operating resolutions, that no one cancelled, is our principle which we will proceed from when assessing actions of any players in the region.”
This is a measured Russian response to Israel’s undeclared assertion that it could attack Syria as and when it deemed fit and that Russian S-300 system is no longer good enough to prevent a strike. The Russian response, however, shows the flexibility of boosting cooperation with Syria to protect the legitimacy of the Syrian question according to UNSC’ own resolution, meaning thereby that they [the Russians] might not hesitate to bolster Syrian air defence systems with more advanced technology to ward off Israeli strikes.
The Syrian response, therefore, might change. This hint was clearly dropped by Deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad when he said that the Syrian response to Israeli actions “may change” next time, which means that Russian can decide to supply more advance anti-air systems to Damascus in the near future. Let’s not forget that it was a similar Israeli strike on Syria that had led Russia to supply S-300 to Syria in the fall of 2018.
While the strike itself doesn’t conclude that the S-300 has been neutralised (some reports suggest it is still not operational), the very fact that Israel continues to strike means that the country is determined to take whatever steps necessary for making sure that the Iranian presence is no threat to Israeli interests.
For the Israelis, Russian alliance with Iran means that there is no alliance between Russia and Israel, only a limited understanding, just enough to ensure that there is no direct conflict between them. An IDF official was thus quoted in a mainstream western media report, saying:
“The Russians are not our allies, to put it mildly. We have one ally, and that is the United States. The Russians are here for totally different objectives. They are supporting a regime [Syria] that has an outspoken goal of annihilating Israel if it only could. They are also part of a coalition that supports Iran.”
For Israel, an ideal scenario is to detach Russia from Iran and Syria. The NSA meeting was just about that and it obviously did not go down as Israel might have expected. The Russia-Iran alliance, therefore, remains intact and is far from finished. The recently announced trilateral summit between Russia, Iran and Turkey speaks volumes about how this alliance remains central to the Syrian question. This summit is very much a continuity of such previous summits. Previous summits took place in February 2019 in Sochi, September 2018 in Tehran, November 2017 in Sochi, April 2018 in Turkey, and of the foreign ministers of the three countries in April 2019 in Kazakhstan.
These summits hold special significance in that they have been truly central to some very significant decisions regarding Syria, ranging from decisions on ceasefires and a kind of road map for ending the eight-year Syrian Civil War. However the next meeting also comes amid Turkey-US tensions as also tensions between Israel and Iran and Israel and Russia over Syria, and the US and Iran. With some reports suggesting that Turkey may hand over Idlib to Syria, the possibility of an even stronger alliance between the three countries becomes brighter—something that Israel as well as the US have been trying to break.
Therefore, as against Netanyahu’s usual bluster about “successful” meeting, the ground reality is strikingly different and potentially remains unchanged for Israel even after an Israeli resolve to do whatever it can to force Iran out of Syria. And just because Israeli strikes continue to make no-difference, the Israelis continue to put emphasis on even more and even harder strikes. The question then is: how long before Israel would grasp that such strikes tend only to bolster alliances on the other side of the geo-political spectrum than weaken it?
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.