Opinion |

Vladimir Putin Is Laying a Bomb on Israel's Doorstep

There's no logical reason for Netanyahu to believe the Russian president's promises that he will push Iranian proxies away from Israel's border. So why is Netanyahu endorsing Putin's lie?

Shlomo Bolts
Shlomo Bolts
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. July 11, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. July 11, 2018Credit: Office of the Russian president
Shlomo Bolts
Shlomo Bolts

In September 1999, residents of an apartment building in the Russian city of Razyan came home to bags of explosives rigged to detonate in their basement. They hastened to call authorities, who confirmed the threat, defused the bomb, and arrested the perpetrators.

The next day, the perpetrators were released – according to some reports, they were Russian intelligence agents. The government declared that there had been no bomb and that it was all a drill.

Residents of the apartment were skeptical, but as one resident later told the LA Times, "The general opinion is that we'd better not challenge them or they will really blow us up."

Indeed, many Russians who challenged the state narrative regarding this incident went on to die suspicious deaths.

Yet one Russian in particular benefitted. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently met him at the World Cup to discuss the Iranian presence in Syria, and came out proclaiming that Russia had pushed Iranian proxies "tens of kilometers" from Israel's border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin - then the Russian intelligence chief – blamed Chechen terrorists for the Razyan incident and went to war with the separatist region of Chechnya the next day. Putin used his role in that war to paint himself as a security hawk, win the Russian presidency, and steer Russia toward authoritarianism. As Russian influence operations on social media gain global notoriety, Israel would be wise to recall this older and more low-tech form of information warfare in Putin's playbook.

It's a fundamental paradox: How could the Razyan hotel incident simultaneously have been a harmless drill, and a causus belli for a wide offensive on the Chechen capital? Putin made both claims; one must be a lie.

If we examine Russian actions near Israel's border today, we confront the same paradox at the heart of Netanyahu's Syria policy: How could Russia simultaneously be the main agent of Iranian expansion, and an Israeli ally in pushing Iran back?

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, outside Moscow. July 12, 2018Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/AP

Both cannot be true. One is a lie.

Netanyahu does not have long to reveal the truth. The Syrian regime is in the midst of a devastating offensive on opposition forces in southern Syria, which borders Israel. Over 250 civilians have been killed in the offensive, which includes Russian airpower and Iran-backed militia fighters. Current reports indicate an exodus of tens of thousands of civilians fleeing toward Israel's border.

And as Haaretz analyst Zvi Bar'el has rightly noted, "Israel is considered the party that gave the green light for the entry of Assad forces into southern Syria...based on a Russian commitment to remove Iranian forces."

Given Netanyahu's strong focus on containing Iran, the Russian commitment is key. Israel does not want Iranian proxy militias near its border, especially since many of them have declared their intentions to target Israel. Yet Russia is facilitating exactly that.

Many international observers underestimate the extent of Iranian involvement in the regime's current offensive, perhaps due to Russian pronouncements that Iran must withdraw from the area, or due to multiple feigned Iranian withdrawals that turned out to be ruses.

In fact, the Iranian proxy Liwa al-Zulfikar was integral to the storming of Busr al-Harir, the first major town to fall to pro-regime forces in the current offensive, as Russian warplanes bombed from above. An Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander was recently reported killed in Deir al-Adas, a northern gateway to the Golan Heights. Similarly, the Iranian proxy group "Abu Fadel al-Abbas" recently appeared in the frontline town of Da'el under 30km from Israel.

Iranian proxy force Abu Fadel al-Abbas' leader "Abu Ajeeb" speaking with a Russian general in Da'el, recently recaptured by Assad forces Credit: Facebook/Da'el Martyrs

Da'el activists shared a photograph earlier this month of Abu Fadel al-Abbas leader "Abu Ajeeb" speaking with a Russian general. I queried former residents of Da'el on the photograph, and they traced its precise location to the Martyr Fayz al-Jamous school in northwest Da'el – a plausible site given current battle lines, and a site that aligns with imagery analysis of the photograph. The Assad regime hasn't controlled Da'el until this month, so the photograph must have been quite recent.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is hardly distancing Iran from the Israeli border. If anything, Iran and Russia are collaborating as closely as ever. But this is the same treacherous double game that Putin played in Razyan 20 years ago.

Just as the same foiled apartment bombing cannot be both a routine intelligence drill and a causus belli for war, we know that Russia can't be Iran's air cover for advances toward Israel and an Israeli ally against Iran at the same time. Furthermore, Putin likely knows that we know; the same day the aformentioned photo was released, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov strongly backtracked on his stance that "all foreign forces" – including Iranian proxies – must leave Syria.

But Putin's goal is not factual accuracy or consistency. It is to plant the proverbial bomb on Israel's doorstep: to present Israel with a mortal threat, make it clear that he is doing so, and leave just enough deniability that Israel chooses to pretend he is an ally rather than confront him for the threat he created.

This mode of information warfare relies on the target audience's fear of confronting Putin. He wants Israel to say, as residents of a Russian apartment once said, "We'd better not challenge them or they will really blow us up."

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. July 11, 2018Credit: Yuri Kadobnov/AP

Unfortunately, it appears Netanyahu has fallen into the trap. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared on May 30 that all Iranian proxies must withdraw; Hezbollah attacked a gateway town to the Golan Heights as recently as July 9; Netanyahu nonetheless declared, mere hours later, that Iranian proxies had withdrawn "tens of kilometers" from Israel's border. In short, Netanyahu endorsed Putin's lie.

There's no logical reason for Netanyahu to believe that Putin's promises in Moscow last week will be implemented, when Lavrov's promises six weeks ago were blatantly flouted, especially now that Russia and Iran have increased their leverage by decimating much of southwest Syria. Israel must realize that if it stays silent now, Iranian proxies are bound to reach Israel's border eventually.

Yet Israel doesn't have to follow this sordid script. President Donald Trump has evinced a firm desire to support Israel, and initiatives to sanction Iranian proxies in the U.S. Congress have earned bipartisan backing. Israel would increase U.S. support against Putin's deception by demanding that the Assad regime alliance expand no further.

Netanyahu should call off his agreement with Putin – Putin did not honor its terms anyway – and call for U.S. support to defend the remnants of opposition to the Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria.

Shlomo Bolts is a Jew of Syrian ancestry and is the Policy and Advocacy Officer at the Syrian American Council, the largest grassroots Syrian American advocacy organization

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