Netanyahu Has a Friend in Moscow. Until He Doesn't

Netanyahu has managed the task of defending Israel's interests in Syria without crossing Putin. But how long can this delicate balance last?

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Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russian President Putin at the World Holocaust Forum.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russian President Putin at the World Holocaust Forum.Credit: POOL/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The World Holocaust Forum – dozens of leaders, prime ministers and senior officials from around the globe – that convened this week in Jerusalem, marginalized the Holocaust. For Israelis at least, it was overshadowed by the issue of the release of Naama Issachar, which developed into the decisive test of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic skills, and above all focused the spotlight on the amount of influence he wields over Russian President Vladimir Putin. Were his efforts to induce Putin to pardon Issachar, who was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for possessing 9.6 grams of hashish, successful? Would the frequent visits Netanyahu made to Russia in the past two years help do the trick?

When it comes to Israel, Russia doesn’t really need a cyberattack to have an impact on an election: The arrest and release of an Israeli citizen are enough to tilt the scales in the prime minister’s favor. But there are a number of truly critical issues pending in Israel-Russia relations – and not only the “liberation” of the Russian Compound in Jerusalem or a change in Israel’s border-control policy toward visitors from Russia.

The military coordination in the Syrian arena is a sensitive topic that is being dealt with very carefully, requiring constant maintenance so that Israel can continue to maneuver between attack operations in Syria and not hindering Russia’s ambition to complete President Bashar Assad’s effort to regain control of the whole of his country. The cooperation seems to be working without any hitches – if we don’t treat the downing of that Russian plane with Syrian missiles in September 2018 as a hitch in coordination with Israel.

An agreed-upon balance has been forged between Russia and Israel, and between the two of them and Iran, by which Israel is able to go on attacking targets whose purpose is to aid Hezbollah, such as convoys of missiles and other weapons or bases from which Iran dispatches arms. Attacking Iranian targets in Syria is considered legitimate as long as Israel can argue convincingly that they are involved in Iran’s delivery of weapons and other materiel to its proxy, Hezbollah. Indeed, Russia apparently prefers to view the military dialogue between Israel and Iran as a matter to which it’s not a party, provided that the attacks are coordinated with the liaison officers of the Russian air force who are stationed at the Khmeimim airbase in northwestern Syria. The coordination raises an intriguing question about the trust between the Russian and Israeli air forces, as each such attack also holds out a risk for the latter of advance information about the planned strike being conveyed between the Russian forces and the Iranian command and the Syrian air force.

An Israeli source involved in the coordination arrangements confirmed to Haaretz that this danger does exist. However, he added, the method is that “if Russia wants to prevent an Israeli attack in a certain area or at a certain time, it says so explicitly and does not play games. All told, our impression is that Russia does not intend to intervene in Israeli activity against Hezbollah and that its considerations are not related solely to the Israeli-Iranian conflict. But there is no guarantee that we won’t see a shift in Russia’s policy regarding the Israeli attacks, if the circumstances change and a political solution to the war in Syria is found.”

Israel’s working assumption was that Russia itself would like not only to see Iran removed physically from Syria, but also for Iran’s influence on the Assad regime to be reduced. Russia’s military intervention in Syria, beginning in 2015, was not intended only to leave a sympathetic and cooperative regime intact, but also to leverage military support to obtain a foothold in the Middle East. But Russia inherited a situation in which Iran was Assad’s ally, granting it billions of dollars-worth of aid and credit. The result is that in the diplomatic realm, Russia, in attempting to bring about the restoration of Assad’s complete control in Syria, is compelled to maneuver between Turkey and Iran.

Moscow exploited its advantage over Iran and Turkey, and was able to persuade some Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrein and Sudan, to renew diplomatic relations with Damascus. But its more significant achievement appears to lie in its success in arranging a meeting this month, in Moscow, between the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, and his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamlouk. The reports that emerged from the meeting, the first such since 2011 and taking place in spite of Turkey’s takeover of parts of northwestern Syria, suggest that even if the two countries did not reach an agreement on the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory, the very fact that the encounter took place might indicate a change of direction by Ankara toward the Assad regime.

Russia’s exploitation of its military advantages in the Syrian arena, and in particular the use of its air force to decide local battles in favor of the Assad regime, have given it a powerful lever for future seizure of such natural resources as oil and phosphates, thus leaving Assad dependent on Russia even after the war ends. In this regard, too, it looks clearly as though Russia is succeeding in marginalizing Iran’s influence, even though Moscow, as opposed to Tehran, is not investing billions of dollars to underwrite the ongoing activity of the Syrian administration.

The town of Ariha, in Idlib, following Russian air strikes last week on the enclave, the last bastion of opposition to the Assad regime. Credit: AFP

Syria is in the grip of an economic crisis that of late has only been growing. The price of a package of pita weighing 800 grams is 39 U.S. cents in Syria’s northern districts, other than in Aleppo, where the price is quoted in Turkish lira. Bakeries and grocery stores are hard-pressed to keep up with the rate of the fall of the Syrian pound against foreign currencies, and have to resort to the Turkish lira and the U.S. dollar as the standards for determining the price of this essential, basic foodstuff. The crash of the Syrian pound is also affecting other basic commodities, whose prices have soared by 20 to 30 percent in the past year, especially after the government decided to reduce dramatically the number of priority products that may be imported from 40 to 10. These are items for which importers are entitled to receive allocations in dollars at the unrealistic official rate of 470 pounds to the dollar, whereas in the black market the dollar is sold for 1,200 pounds, sharply up from the beginning of last year, when the rate was 500 pounds per dollar.

Syrians living in areas controlled by the regime are being hurt even more than those who live in the few regions still in opposition hands. The reason is that, whereas the opposition-held locales are enjoying an influx of tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from Turkey and Qatar, which support them, in the state-controlled areas it is almost impossible to obtain dollars in the black market, let alone from the banks.

Recently, President Assad announced a policy of imposing a prison term of up to seven years as well as a large fine on unlicensed money changers. The order drove down the price of the dollar slightly, but clogged up the acquisition pipeline even more, and led to empty shelves in the stores. The result is already visible in the streets of Damascus and in the periphery, in cities such as Suwayda, in southern Syria, where people demonstrated against the government, shouting, “We left the politics to you, now leave us the bread,” and “We want to live.” These are not demonstrations that impress the regime very much, not do they pose a threat to its power, but they do present it as being incapable of managing the country properly and are a signal to the millions of Syrian refugees living abroad that they still have nothing to come back to.

The regime’s media outlets constantly report on special campaigns being conducted by the government against price gougers, smugglers of goods and crooks who sell defective products, and also maintain that the regime is requiring bakeries and gas stations to install closed-circuit cameras in order to keep an eye on manipulations and fraud. However, such measures are unlikely to convince the public that the regime is effective. The fact is that, in the face of the declarations and communiques about the number of indictments filed against commercial offenders, the country’s citizens see how the senior officers who are in charge of security and order in the cities that are now in the regime’s hands, have created an extensive system of theft and robbery of homes whose plunder they sell in the open markets. This form of plunder even has an almost official name, ta’afish, referring to the looting of domestic utensils and furniture. In this case, too, the regime publishes reports about the arrest of officers who engaged in ta’afish, but Syrian journalists explain that this does not amount to a purging of corruption from the army but rather involves the arrest of officers who have begun competing with their “veteran” colleagues in the housebreaking profession, whose source of income they are threatening.

Together with the internal struggles between officers and district commanders over the slices of income the war throws their way, a campaign – now all but decided – is underway between Iran and Russia over what can still be gleaned from the Syrian economy. Russia has already laid its hands on the oil fields, with Russian corporations having signed agreements for the future development and production of oil, as well as for phosphates. Iran is having to make do with the “rehabilitation of the country,” meaning the building of residential dwellings in Syria, particularly in the poor regions. In contrast to the Russian profits, which are likely to arrive in the near future and don’t require relatively large investments, the Iranian projects, such as fulfilling an agreement to build between 30,000 and 200,000 housing units, will compel Tehran to invest big money in the short term, whereas the profits, if any, will extend across many years.

This division of labor between Iran and Russia is hardly helping Syria to rehabilitate itself, besides which the military campaign is not yet over. The Idlib situation heated up again this week, when Russian planes bombed targets in the enclave, killing 18 people, including six from one family. It’s here that tens of thousands of militiamen have taken root, notably from Islamist organizations such as the Syrian Liberation Front (formerly Jabhat a-Nusra), and tens of thousands of refugees have fled from the city and surrounding villages toward Turkey. The cease-fire that was agreed on between Russia and Turkey two weeks ago is already in tatters. Some targets were also bombed in Aleppo, and in the east Kurdish forces continue to tangle with small units of ISIS.

These events, together with the failure of a committee that Russia helped to establish in order to forge an agreement on the basis for a future constitution for Syria, are delaying a broad diplomatic and political course of action. From Israel’s point of view, these conditions allow it greater freedom of action in Syrian skies, subject to agreements with Russia. The problem is that this situation creates Israeli dependence on Russian vested interests – which are not limited only to the Syrian arena or to an Israeli commitment not to harm Assad or his regime.

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