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.
WU HONG/AFP

Russias threat to veto the UN Security Council resolution renewing UNIFILs mandate in Lebanon if it cited Hezbollah as a terrorist organization appears to reflect an approach that could undermine Israels security interests. As Barak Ravid reported in Mondays 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 doesnt happen. But his statement probably didnt 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 Israels northeastern border, but also about Irans 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 its worth recalling that the agreement on the de-escalation zones was obtained with Americas consent, and it doesnt mandate the removal of either Iranian or Hezbollah troops. Russia and Iran agreed that some of the pro-Iranian forces stationed along Syrias 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 Israels 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 Irans interests into account, because Iran has become a full partner in managing the crisis in Syria.

For Moscow, Hezbollahs 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 Russias view, even if Hezbollah is violating the resolution, this doesnt detract from UNIFILs 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 isnt 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, Israels attacks on Hezbollah arms convoys from Syria to Lebanon. Herein lies the contradiction in Russias stance: If Hezbollah isnt 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 dont 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 didnt stem from any great concern for Israels security on Russias 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 Russias 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. Russias absolute control of the Syrian theater, coupled with Americas departure from it, allow Russia freedom of operation both on the ground and in the international arena.

Russias threat at the United Nations over the Hezbollah issue attests to this new trend. Admittedly, theres no guarantee Russia would have agreed to change the resolutions wording even if Putins 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 UNs definition of Hezbollah, is where the real threat to Israels security interests lies, because its becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to defending Israels 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 Irans nuclear program. But Trumps behavior has made him a hostile party not only in Russias eyes, but in those of other Western states, which wont 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 Israels 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 Israels interests.