Israel and Russia Find Common Interest in Syria

'Any strategic change in Syria could leave us facing difficult questions,' an expert who advises Israeli intelligence says. 'We don't know who might replace Assad'

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A poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at the historic Hamidiyah market in Damascus' old city.
A poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at the historic Hamidiyah market in Damascus' old city.Credit: LOUAI BESHARA / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It was an interesting development Wednesday: The Syrian missile that crashed near Ashalim in the Negev, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Dimona nuclear reactor, wasn’t intercepted by the Israeli systems meant to do just that.

This might make clear that the main threat to Israel isn’t necessarily the prime minister’s PR machine that hasn’t eschewed a confrontation with the Biden administration.

Israel operates freely in the airspace over Syria and Lebanon, attacks the heart of Iran’s nuclear production facilities, bombs near Damascus and on the Syria-Iraq border, and hovers over Beirut. But it’s not immune to missiles – fired accidentally or not – from the Gaza Strip.

The central pillar of Israeli strategy against these threats is actually tactical. Threatening rhetoric and surgical strikes, even if they eliminate heads of organizations, scientists and military facilities – including nuclear ones – haven’t changed the strategic threat much. It’s actually the official agreements, such as those signed between Israel and Arab countries, or unofficial ones, such as those between Israel and Hamas, that have increased security.

Syria is a good example of an enemy country that still toes the line of heated confrontation against Israel. Still, despite the Iranian presence, Syria isn’t seen as a strategic threat, and not just because of its limited military capabilities. The relationship between Israel and Syria has been strengthened by understandings between Israel and Russia, and recently with the Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which were added as anchors to guarantee quiet with Syria because of their renewed ties with the Syrian regime.

Israeli soldiers inspect a piece of debris after a missile launched from Syria landed in southern Israel, on Thursday.Credit: Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP

“Is there an end in which Russia leaves Syria, in which Iran leaves Syria, in which Turkey leaves Syria, ultimately, in which Assad leaves Syria?” Democrat Ted Deutch, the chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism, asked experts this week in a session on America’s Syria strategy.

Some of the experts called this an unrealistic goal, while others recommended American-Russian cooperation that would leave Moscow’s military assets in Syria if Russia dropped President Bashar Assad. The experts agreed that reviving American involvement in Syria, in light of Joe Biden’s policy that it’s time to “bring the troops home,” or imposing a solution that would bypass Russia are only dreams for now.

Israel, which isn’t even a participant in the nuclear talks with Iran, can’t shape Washington’s Syria policy, but it’s not clear if Israel even knows what strategy it wants. To Israel’s intelligence services, the existing situation isn’t ideal, but it’s the best Israel could hope to achieve. The Assad regime isn’t looking for a direct – or indirect – war with Israel, and it doesn’t respond to attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. Also, the military and aerial coordination with Russia functions properly, Hezbollah’s entrenchment on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights has been stopped, and Iran has redeployed, even if it hasn’t withdrawn as far back as Israel wants.

“Any strategic change in Syria could leave us facing difficult questions,” an expert who advises Israeli intelligence on Syria told Haaretz. “We don’t know who might replace Assad, and whether the conditions to replace him will come about at all. It’s impossible to know what regime will arise as part of the diplomatic solution, which countries will influence the new regime, and what will be the strategy of such a regime toward Israel.”

Presidential election

The expert added that the discussions on an alternative regime in Syria don’t top the priority list of Israeli intelligence officials or the government. The matter came up when Russia pushed the Astana Process – the peace talks in the Kazakh capital where both the Assad regime and the rebels tried to craft a political solution to the Syrian crisis. The talks for now are in a deep freeze.

Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad at an orthodox cathedral in Damascus in 2020.Credit: Alexei Druzhinin / AP

Israel was interested in the matter at the beginning of the Syrian civil war when Assad’s future depended on stopping the rebels – and Israeli representatives met with opposition figures to discuss military aid from Israel and the feasibility of aid in toppling the regime.

But Assad’s retaking of most of Syria with Russian help, the splitting of the opposition into a number of administrative bodies under two separate leaderships, has convinced Israel that it’s best to have contacts with specific organizations that could serve its immediate interests, such as those in southern Syria in the Daraa and Sweida districts. This would prevent pro-Iranian forces from entrenching themselves, and Israel would forgo ambitious plans on regime change.

It seems Russia is a partner to Israel’s position and has ramped down its operations to promote a diplomatic solution. Its air force has operated against rebels, such as the bombing this week at Palmyra where, according to Russian reports, “at least 200 terrorists were killed.” It also supports tribal militias in eastern Syria that have taken control of buildings in areas under the control of the Kurdish forces, who are supported by the United States.

At the same time, Russia is sticking with the local agreements between the militias and the regime, as it has done since 2018, with the goal of stabilizing local cease-fires. This policy has helped Assad restore his control over many regions of the country, except for the northern areas where the Kurds rule, and in the Idlib region, where control is divided between government forces and armed militias, mostly the Tahrir al-Sham organization.

Russia is also among the handful of countries that support the holding of the May 26 presidential election. Russia has made clear that all parties must honor the Syrian constitution, which sets the timetable for the election, as well as Assad’s term in office. If he wins reelection, he can stay in office for another seven years.

Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, son Yair, and Vladimir Putin in Tel Aviv in 2020.Credit: Aleksey Nikolskyi / AP

According to the constitution, this will be the last term Assad can run for, but don’t hold your breath. Changing the constitution according to the president’s needs isn’t something particularly rare in Syria.

Syrians may be able to vote overseas, but the regime has announced that Syrians living abroad – including some 6 million refugees – can only vote if they have an official exit document, making most of them ineligible. Meanwhile, most Kurds are expected to boycott the election, and the millions of internally displaced persons won’t be able to vote at polling stations they’re not assigned to.

Biden’s dilemma

The international ridicule for the very intention of holding an election  doesn’t impress Assad or Russia, which see the process as proof of the regime’s legitimacy and of Syria being a country governed by the rule of law that’s careful to follow its constitution.

More importantly, Assad’s rule is the legal guarantee for a long list of economic agreements that Russia signed in recent years that include the rights to oil and natural gas drilling under excellent conditions. This includes last month's agreement for gas and oil exploration in Syria’s exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea.

This agreement has alarmed Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, which border Syria’s waters, because Russia’s entry into this playing field could upset the fragile division of maritime rights. This has sparked a severe crisis between Turkey and Greece, Cyprus and the European Union, and between Syria and Lebanon, which say the border of the exclusive economic zone has not yet been agreed on.

On this matter too, we haven’t heard Washington’s position except for Biden’s comment that his advisers are working hard on reexamining U.S. policy in the Middle East. The U.S. policy might become less foggy in July, if it’s indeed crafted by then, when the UN Security Council once again discusses the opening of the border crossings to humanitarian convoys for Syrians in the north.

Then Vice President Joe Biden with Vladamir Putin in Moscow in 2011.Credit: Alexander Natruskin / Reuters

About 4.5 million people rely on these supply convoys, and the Syrian regime and Moscow must approve their entry. In 2014, the United Nations passed a resolution to operate four border crossings, from Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, and during every period a new resolution had to be passed to keep them open. Russia and China twice used their vetoes regarding the crossings, and last time they agreed to approve only one crossing between northern Syria and Turkey.

The United States and Europe are demanding an increase in the number of opened crossings because the one that’s open, at Bab al-Hawa, can’t handle the thousands of trucks that wait with goods such as life-saving medicines that go to waste every day. The Syrian forces supervising the crossings loot some of the goods or demand bribes for letting them cross, even when the truck drivers have the necessary permits.

Sealing off most of the crossings, known as “the starvation strategy” with which the Assad regime and Russia are trying to force the Kurdish and Islamist militias in Idlib to surrender, will force Biden to make a clear strategic decision on this brutal policy.

Will he suffice with a condemnation and diplomatic messages, will he impose further sanctions on Syria and maybe even Russia, or will he send a task force to oversee the crossings? No decision will be isolated from the bad blood between Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or from his aggressive diplomatic campaign against Russia and in negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal.

For the residents of northern Syria, who can’t obtain medicine and food staples, these considerations are an existential danger. But of course they’re not participants in the process.

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