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July 17, 2018 12:05 pm

Have Putin and Netanyahu Struck a Grand Bargain?

avatar by Hillel Frisch

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Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, July 11, 2018. Photo: Yuri Kadobnov / Pool via Reuters.

Israel allegedly struck the T4 base near Homs, Syria on July 8, but did not conduct any airstrikes to stop the advance of Syrian and Hezbollah forces southward from Daraa all the way to the Jordanian border — a mere 20 miles east of the Israeli Golan Heights.

How could Israel be so forceful against a target more than 100 miles from its northern border, and yet so passive as Syrian, Hezbollah, and possibly Iranian forces crushed the rebels and reconquered territory?

Has Jerusalem not stressed time and time again that it will not allow the northern border with Syria to replicate its northern border with Lebanon, for which it has paid dearly for more than two decades?

The meeting that took place between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a week after the Syrian advance might go a long way toward explaining Israel’s passivity. Russia might be offering Israel a grand bargain that Putin believes will meet the interests of both parties. Its cornerstone is keeping Iran at bay in Syria until a total settlement of the Syrian war is reached, which would include:

  • The withdrawal of Turkey from the northwestern strip along the Turkish-Syrian border in its war against the Kurds.
  • The removal of the US presence and involvement in the southeastern area of al-Tanf. This presence is part of a campaign against the continued presence of ISIS, but it has also led to painful US airstrikes against Syrian and Hezbollah forces, and US support for Kurdish forces along the eastern side of the Euphrates down to the Deir az-Zur area.

Putin probably assured Netanyahu that once these foreign forces are removed, including the Turkish logistical lifeline it provides to the Sunni rebels in the Idlib area (the rebels’ last territorial stronghold), Moscow will make sure the Iranians and Hezbollah leave Syria as well.

Putin likely stressed to Netanyahu that he has already committed himself to this bargain by turning a blind eye to the painful blows that Israel has rained on Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. Above all, Putin may have told Netanyahu that Russia’s involvement in Syria, in utter contrast to his Communist predecessors (whom he of course served as a minor security official), will help achieve regional stability based on territorial integrity, with each state — and each actor within each state — “persuaded” to honor the territorial integrity of the other states.

According to such a vision, Hezbollah will finally settle down to being a “national” Lebanese party, shorn of its theocratic and “resistance” mantle along with its militia. Iran will turn to its many domestic concerns. Syria will be hard at work coming up with a federal solution to meet the needs of its heterogeneous population — provided, of course, that the Alawite canton is assured of its stability, if only because Russia wants its naval presence in Tartus and its airbase in Khmeimim.

Should this scenario come to pass, Israel would be the major beneficiary of a new order based on states and state actors minding their own business, except for cross-border commerce that would augment regional stability.

But why should Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah play the roles that the grand bargain assigns them? After all, aren’t all three ideologically committed to the destruction of the Jewish state?

Putin believes that Damascus has no choice but to agree to cut ties with Tehran. The alternative is to risk being carved up by outside forces such as Turkey, the US, and perhaps most menacingly, Iran, its presumed ally. Each will have the help of its respective proxies — the remnant Syrian rebels under Turkish influence; the Kurds, supported by the US; and Hezbollah and Iraqi militias in the service of Iran.

Iran could agree to withdraw if it has internalized the lesson it has been taught over the past two years — the strategic use of air power. Russia’s successful use of air power turned the tide in the Syrian state’s favor against the rebels, and air power was used by Israel and the US to punish Iranian forces and allies. Their airstrikes might become more coordinated and deadly, and even target Iranian territory itself, should Tehran continue to harbor imperial ambitions that clash with Moscow’s eagerness to broker stability in the area.

Of course, the extent to which Russia can implement this grand bargain is contingent on what happens between Putin’s Russia and America under Donald Trump. A clear American acceptance of Moscow’s primacy in the former Soviet republics and the removal of all sanctions against Russia or Russians to prove that commitment will be the major Russian demand.

Yet even if these agreements — first between Putin and Netanyahu and then between Putin and Trump — come to pass, it is hardly assured that Russia will be willing or able to see the Iranians out of Syria. According to Michael Sharnoff, an expert on superpower relations with their Middle East clients, the Soviet Union scarcely prevailed in key Syrian decisions despite the massive economic and military support it gave the Assad regime. This included the decision to enter disengagement talks with Israel in 1974 without informing the Soviets.

Putin does seem to have convinced Netanyahu, at any rate. The latter made a statement after the meeting in which he said (contrary to fact), “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime. For 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.”

Maybe on the Golan Heights there were few problems, but Syrian aid to Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations was not only problematic for Israel for over three decades but was in fact deadly.

Israeli passivity at the Syrian advance southward might prove in hindsight to have been at best a missed opportunity and at worst a major strategic mistake.

Professor Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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