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Netanyahu’s Sudden Trip to Russia: What Is Israel Worried About?

Israeli PM interrupted Putin's vacation on the Black Sea coast

The stated purpose of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sudden Aug. 23 trip to Sochi and meeting with the Russian president was to update him about the "scale of Iran’s military footprint in Syria". However, this is something Tel Aviv does with enviable regularity, and since Russia already has a presence on the ground in Syria, Israel would be hard-pressed to be able to offer Moscow any new information on this. Moreover, according to the Israeli press, a less prominent Israeli delegation presented a similar report some time ago in Washington that failed to make much of an impression there.

However, the director of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, and the head of Israel’s National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, also made the trip to Sochi, in addition to the prime minister, which indicates the particular significance of the meeting for Netanyahu. And DEBKAfile reports that the powwow lasted a full three hours, despite the Russian president’s tight schedule that day.

Israeli analysts surmise that Netanyahu is not only worried about the presence of Iranian volunteer squadrons in Syria, but also about how a quick end to the civil war in that country would not, on the whole, work in Israel’s favor. For example, the joint Lebanese-Syrian operation to rout the last major Islamic State (IS) contingent on the border between the two countries in the western Qalamoun region, 20 km. north of Israel, will soon be winding down. One might expect that once the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units and their allies are freed up there, they would next turn their attentions to clearing terrorists from the areas bordering Israel, particularly in the region of Quneitra. 

Israel, therefore, faces a serious dilemma. The Israelis don’t want to let Damascus re-approach their border near the occupied Golan Heights, for then it will become apparent that Netanyahu’s entire strategy of supporting the Syrian opposition and renouncing Assad has failed. That moment of truth could deal the final blow to his cabinet’s rather precarious position. It would also prove awkward to actually be fighting on the side of al-Qaeda militants from HTS. Even the US gave that idea a very cool reception. Hence this explanation: the "terrifying" country of Iran is on the verge of capturing all of Syria with the help of "Shi’ite militias," and Israel is firmly drawing "lines in the sand" against Tehran and Lebanon’s pro-Iranian "Hezbollah". If those lines are crossed, that will necessitate the use of all of Israel’s military might.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Russian monitors and peacekeepers (two squadrons of military police from Ingushetia are currently on duty) are stationed at 10 roadblocks, 13 kilometers from what would be the battlefield on the western borders of the southern "de-escalation zone" in Syria. Those peacekeepers have been awarded international recognition, even in accordance with an agreement with the United States.

There’s a good reason Israel was not terribly pleased by either the creation of this "de-escalation zone" or by the appearance of the Russian peacekeepers there. It will be quite easy for them to see if Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or agents from Hezbollah are moving in Israel’s direction.

Gone are the days when the survival of Damascus largely depended on foreign volunteers. New military divisions and even SAA corps have already emerged, made up of Syrians. Assad has no need to use Iranians or Lebanese to take control of the Israeli border – he has his own units for that. That’s why Netanyahu is so insistent in his attempts to convince Moscow that the Iranians are bound to attack them for some reason. Of course the Iranian divisions in Syria theoretically don’t even possess the heavy weaponry that would make it possible for them to do such a thing. That is entirely in the hands of the SAA and lately also within the Russian advisors’ zone of interest.

Moscow is telling the truth when it claims that it is not only concerned about Israel’s security, it is also prepared to guarantee it. But that security has to be real, not pretend. Both sides need to call a spade a spade. It’s already clear to any unbiased observer that the outcome of the war in Syria is a foregone conclusion. And the victors won’t only be individual politicians like Assad, but also the entire Syrian nation.

Clear-sighted politicians should have accepted reality long ago and adjusted their strategy accordingly, without attempting to turn back the hands of time. Only thus will they be in a position to ensure stability, both for themselves and for the region as a whole.

The future evolution of this conflict will largely depend on the US stance. Israeli pundits acknowledge that Netanyahu, despite all his threats, is unlikely to launch a serious military operation in Syria unless he gets some sort of nod from Washington.

That’s what would also demonstrate whether the White House is prepared to cross the rickety bridge toward reconciliation in Syria or whether it wants to plunge that country back into total chaos, which, given the current power dynamics, would bode ill for itself. IS is on the verge of total collapse in Syria. Next in line could be America’s allies from the Free Syrian Army.

Maariv, a prominent Israeli newspaper, regretfully observes that the Aug. 23 meeting in Sochi "will not change the sad fact that when it comes to Iran, Israel has no true allies on the international stage". And that publication puts the blame for this on Netanyahu himself, who – when it came down it – proved unable to secure the support of those politicians he is so proud to call his friends – the presidents of the US and Russia.

However, does "friendship" include indulging anything one’s «friend» does, even if what he’s doing is a mistake? After all, it has more than once been explained to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Iranian troops will depart once the war in Syria ends. That’s even what Tehran is saying.

And perhaps it would be better, before it’s too late, to play a role in events on the winner’s side? Even in the absence of diplomatic relations, it’s not so hard to find a way. This would be the most intelligent policy.

Source: Strategic Culture

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