Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday will be devoted mainly to Israel’s demand that all Iranian forces leave Syria – a demand that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already deemed completely unrealistic.
Russia has told Israel on several occasions that it can’t make Iran leave Syria completely; the most it can do is try to get Iranian forces and Iranian-affiliated militias, including Hezbollah, to move a significant distance away from the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights. But Russia isn’t even managing to keep its promise to secure a partial withdrawal of Iranian forces.
According to reports from Syria, even during the Syrian army’s conquest of the Daraa district over the past few days, Iranian officers and observers and Hezbollah fighters participated alongside the Syrian troops. It also turns out that the Syrian army – which now controls most of the border between Syria and Jordan, including the Naseeb border crossing – is entering rebel-controlled areas in violation of an agreement it reached just last week.
Thus it’s not clear where Israel’s assessment, or faith, about Russia’s ability to oust Iran comes from. Nevertheless, Israel seems to have maintained this assessment for at least the last two years, since before Donald Trump was elected U.S. president and even more so afterward.
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The American magazine The New Yorker revealed on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel had suggested to Trump that America offer to cancel the sanctions it imposed on Russia four years ago, following Russia’s war in Ukraine and occupation of the Crimean peninsula, in exchange for Russian action to remove Iranian forces from Syria. Reporter Adam Entous wrote that shortly before the U.S. elections in 2016, the UAE’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, met with an American mediator and told him Putin might be interested in solving the Syrian crisis in exchange for an end to sanctions on Russia.
Bin Zayed, the reporter said, wasn’t the only one pushing this idea. Senior Israeli and Saudi officials also did so in conversations with senior American officials.
In April 2017, Entous reported in the Washington Post that Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, had met with Erik Prince at a resort in the Seychelles belonging to Bin Zayed. Prince is the founder of Blackwater, a private military company which worked in Iraq and was suspected of committing crimes there, but he’s also close to Steve Bannon, who was then Trump’s closest adviser.
The meeting was called to discuss whether Russia would be willing to curtail its ties with Iran, including its cooperation with Iran in Syria, in exchange for American concessions on sanctions. Later, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also invested billions of dollars in projects in Syria to encourage Putin to sever ties with Iran.
Entous said he doesn’t know whether the proposal came from Putin himself, one of his aides, or the UAE crown prince.
After Trump’s election, during the transition period before he took office, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer said during a private meeting that Israel was encouraging cooperation between Trump and Putin in the hopes of convincing Russia to push the Iranians out of Syria, a person present at the meeting told Entous.
“Israel does believe it is possible to get a U.S.-Russian agreement in Syria that would push the Iranians out,” a senior Israeli official told Entous, adding that doing so “could be the beginning of an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations over all.”
An American official who spoke with an Israeli minister close to Netanyahu told the New Yorker that the minister had tried to sell him on the idea of “trading Ukraine for Syria” – canceling sanctions on Russia in exchange for Iran’s removal from Syria. The Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers also marketed this idea.
At a private dinner with senior American officials, the two foreign ministers ask why America didn’t cancel the sanctions on Russia in exchange for Iran’s ouster. “It wasn’t a trial balloon. They were trying to socialize the idea,” a person present at the dinner told Entous.
Would Trump be willing to agree to such a deal? According to Entous’ sources, even if he were, Russia isn’t capable of supplying the goods. Moreover, at a time when Trump is under investigation for his ties to Russia before the election, even raising the idea could undermine his defense.
It’s not inconceivable that Netanyahu will try to sell this idea to Putin. Perhaps the idea will even arise at Putin’s summit meeting with Trump on July 16. But before anyone entertains the idea of an international persuasion campaign, it’s worth considering what Iran itself is willing to do.
Diplomatic common sense says that Iran would be willing to make concessions in Syria in exchange for cancelation of the new sanctions America has imposed on it and reinstatement of the nuclear deal which Trump scrapped. But this logic contradicts the adamant positions of Trump, Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the nuclear deal.
Iran itself has been very clear about its interest in remaining in Syria, just as it still vehemently insists that the nuclear agreement isn’t subject to renegotiation. Thus at this stage, the most Israel can hope for is some kind of Russian plan to enable the Syrian regime to regain control of the Golan without Syrian forces entering the area, alongside Russian coordination with Israel on the status quo after the war ends.