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August 21, 2017 4:24 pm

Putin Unlikely to Allay Netanyahu’s Concerns Over Iranian Presence in Syria at Upcoming Sochi Parley, Expert Says

avatar by Ben Cohen

Gen. Qasem Soleimaini (center, front row) of the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) visits Iranian forces in Syria, May 2016. Photo: File.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin this week for the first time since the Russia-US deal on a ceasefire in southwestern Syria was announced in July — but Jerusalem should not expect any concessions from Moscow over Iran’s growing military presence in Syria, a leading expert on Russian policy toward the Middle East said on Monday.

“Putin is not going to say anything that’s going to surprise Russia analysts,” Anna Borshchevskaya — the Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank — told The Algemeiner.

Netanyahu arrives in the Russian resort city of Sochi on Wednesday with the issue of Iran’s footprint in Syria uppermost in his mind.

Announced on July 7 following the first encounter in person between Putin and US President Donald Trump, the exact details of the Syria ceasefire deal have remained sketchy. While both leaders said that concerns about the potential spillover of the Syrian war had been taken into account, Israel is known to be deeply concerned that the so-called “de-escalation zones” in Syria — created under a separate agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran, without US involvement — will provide a major opportunity for Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah to continue establishing weapons factories, command posts, missile launch sites and other threats that directly endanger Israel. These worries led Netanyahu to publicly reject the deal, as other influential Israelis warned that Jerusalem would not hesitate to militarily destroy Iranian and Hezbollah assets in Syria should the imperative arise.

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Meetings between Netanyahu and Putin have now become routine — with Netanyahu raising near-identical concerns about Syria during their last sit-down  in March. But neither leader is expected to diverge from their common position that Israel and Russia must cooperate, even if their interests collide at Wednesday’s meeting, Borshchevskaya explained.

“Putin will push the same line as before,” she said. “He’ll say that Israel’s concerns about Iran are overstated, he’s going to say that Russia is in Syria to bring stability and stamp out ISIS, and he will talk about America — he’ll say that the Americans invaded Iraq and created this mess, and that consequently Russia is the only voice of reason.”

Borshchevskaya added that, at the same time, Putin would be respectful to his Israeli guest. “He will say that he understands Israel’s concerns, he will point out that Russia and Israel are in the same struggle against terrorism, but there will also be a subtle message that we don’t have the same interests,” she predicted.

Israel may, however, feel now that the US is a step closer to understanding its position. At a press briefing on August 1, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that a key condition of US cooperation with the Russians in Syria was “that Iran’s military influence, the direct presence of Iranian military forces inside of Syria, they must leave and go home, whether those are Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces or whether those are paid militias, foreign fighters, that Iran has brought into Syria in this battle.”

Ultimately, Netanyahu’s demands of Putin will be tempered by the realization that “this is not an equal relationship,” Borshchevskaya said.

“Both of them are aware of that,” she said.


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