Analysis

Russia's Moves on Hezbollah in Syria Expose How Trump's Mideast Policy Endangers Israel

For the first time, an American president has pushed Israel into a situation where it must divide its strategic planning on Syria between two rival powers

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends  the Dialogue of Emerging Market and Developing Countries on the sideline of the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China, Sept. 5, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Dialogue of Emerging Market and Developing Countries on the sideline of the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China, Sept. 5, 2017. WU HONG/AFP

Russia’s threat to veto the UN Security Council resolution renewing UNIFIL’s mandate in Lebanon if it cited Hezbollah as a terrorist organization appears to reflect an approach that could undermine Israel’s security interests. As Barak Ravid reported in Monday’s Haaretz, it also attests to the fierce disagreements between Israel and Russia on proposed arrangements in Syria.

Admittedly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov moved swiftly to reject this interpretation, saying, “We told the Israelis that if they have any worries about their security being impacted, there is no reason to worry, since we are committed to ensuring that this doesn’t happen.” But his statement probably didn’t reassure Jerusalem.

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Israel and Russia have deep disagreements over the establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria – primarily over the presence of Iranian forces, or pro-Iranian forces like Hezbollah, near Israel’s northeastern border, but also about Iran’s presence elsewhere in Syria. Consequently, the defensive shield Russia provided for Hezbollah at the United Nations is being perceived as a diplomatic test of the seriousness of its reassuring statements about Israel.

But it’s worth recalling that the agreement on the de-escalation zones was obtained with America’s consent, and it doesn’t mandate the removal of either Iranian or Hezbollah troops. Russia and Iran agreed that some of the pro-Iranian forces stationed along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel would be redeployed, and that Russian forces would supervise implementation of the truce in the southern de-escalation zone. Israel had several opportunities to voice objections to this agreement, both to the U.S. administration and to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but both great powers have interests that go beyond Israel’s concerns.

The fact is that Russia wants to secure a cease-fire covering all of Syria, an ambition Washington shares. And to achieve it, Russia must take Iran’s interests into account, because Iran has become a full partner in managing the crisis in Syria.

For Moscow, Hezbollah’s deployment in southern Lebanon and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War of 2006, are marginal issues. In Russia’s view, even if Hezbollah is violating the resolution, this doesn’t detract from UNIFIL’s authority to supervise its implementation or provide a reason to amend its wording, to which Israel consented when it passed in 2006.

Incidentally, the proposed change in wording has no practical significance for Israel either, since even if Hezbollah isn’t defined as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, Israel considers itself free to fight it by any means necessary.

Russia views Hezbollah not as a terrorist organization, but as a legitimate political one. Nevertheless, it has turned a blind eye to, and even permitted, Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah arms convoys from Syria to Lebanon. Herein lies the contradiction in Russia’s stance: If Hezbollah isn’t a terrorist organization, why is Moscow willing to let Israel attack its arms shipments?

The answer can be found in the informal agreements reached between Israel and Russia as part of their security coordination in Syria, which is meant to ensure that Israeli and Russian jets don’t attack each other in Syrian skies. In an interview with Amos Harel, outgoing air force commander Amir Eshel said Israel has conducted at least 100 air strikes in Syria to thwart Hezbollah arms shipments.

These informal agreements also didn’t stem from any great concern for Israel’s security on Russia’s part, but rather from an understanding of the situation in Syria and a pragmatic view that it was better to avoid aerial fights with Israel to ensure that Russia’s air force could operate in Syria unhindered. If arms shipments to Hezbollah were disrupted as a result, that was a marginal price to pay for the strategic benefit.

But Russia also has diplomatic interests that go beyond Syria. The chasm between the Kremlin and White House creates a new risk that Russia will try to torpedo any initiative, diplomatic or military, proposed by Washington. Russia’s absolute control of the Syrian theater, coupled with America’s departure from it, allow Russia freedom of operation both on the ground and in the international arena.

Russia’s threat at the United Nations over the Hezbollah issue attests to this new trend. Admittedly, there’s no guarantee Russia would have agreed to change the resolution’s wording even if Putin’s relations with U.S. President Donald Trump were superb. But under the circumstances, it was an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate its ability to torpedo American policy in other theaters.

This, and not the UN’s definition of Hezbollah, is where the real threat to Israel’s security interests lies, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to defending Israel’s borders, though Washington can still provide advanced weaponry and intelligence, in the diplomatic arena Israel has lost an essential mediator – this time through no fault of its own.

In the not so distant past, Israel could rely on American presidents to help it mobilize, or even to lead, international coalitions to prevent strategic threats to Israel, such as Iran’s nuclear program. But Trump’s behavior has made him a “hostile party” not only in Russia’s eyes, but in those of other Western states, which won’t rush to cooperate with him to foil threats.

A no less important consequence is that Israel must now conduct diplomatic and strategic negotiations directly with Russia, thereby turning Moscow into a crucial partner in maintaining Israel’s security interests, without Jerusalem being able to rely on American backing to impress the Kremlin. For the first time, an American president has pushed Israel into a situation where it must divide its strategic planning between two rival powers and even serve as a board piece in a complex game in which Russia, which is seeking to crush American prestige, is liable to play very roughly with regard to Israel’s interests.