Russia’s great comeback in the Middle East has made Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a regular visitor to the Kremlin. World Cup semifinals or not, almost nobody disputes that the ties between Jerusalem and Moscow have grown much closer due to the regional circumstances.
But Netanyahu’s latest visit was different, because the moment of truth is approaching. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump are about to meet, and the Americans will have to clarify their position – and set explicit conditions – on Russia’s goal of once again crowning Bashar Assad as Syria’s ruler and stabilizing his regime.
For years, Assad has been the world’s leading villain, having brutally slaughtered his own countrymen and created a massive, tragic refugee wave. The heartrending pictures from the divided country made Europe and America insist, over and over, that “Assad must go.”
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Israel refrained from open involvement in the horrors taking place to its north, but behind the scenes it flirted with many different groups over the years. Humanitarian aid and, according to foreign reports, military aid to Syrian rebels were meant in part to prepare for the day when Israel might have to deal with a different Syrian leadership.
But Russia’s involvement changed the picture. World leaders already understand that the situation can no longer be altered, so all that’s left is to discuss the conditions for recognizing Assad’s renewed rule. Europe’s demands for renewing recognition of the mass murderer include limitations on his use of illegal weapons, free elections, a constitution and a solution to the refugee problem.
But Israel has other demands, and, apparently, so does America. Thwarting Iran’s influence in the region takes precedence over everything else.
Israel doesn’t want to be Syria’s policeman, Israeli officials say, but only to protect its security interests. Demanding democratization isn’t top priority right now.
So what is Israel’s top priority at this delicate moment, when facts are being determined on the ground? First of all, getting rid of the missiles which Netanyahu says are aimed at Israel – “weapons they brought there for the explicit purpose of attacking us.”
Second is removing all pro-Iranian forces from Syria. While Netanyahu was in Moscow, government sources said the Russians have already removed Iran from southern Syria, to a distance of “tens of kilometers” from Israel’s border. But Israel is still demanding a full withdrawal.
Israel also wants Assad to honor the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement and restore the status quo ante along the border. “We had no problem with the Assad regime; for 40 years, not one bullet was fired at the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu told reporters in Moscow.
But the “heart of the issue,” he said, is maintaining Israel’s freedom of action “against any party that acts against us” – whether it’s Iran, ISIS, Hezbollah or Assad’s own forces.
The Israeli-Russian deal that has emerged in recent years now seems clearer than ever: Putin won’t impede Israel’s freedom of action in Syria and will keep Iran away from Israel’s border, and Israel won’t hinder Assad from returning to power.
The question that still remains open is what Israel’s no-hindrance card is worth. Does Putin think it’s only worth an effort to distance Iranian forces from the border, or is it worth ousting Iran entirely, as Netanyahu demands? That issue is at the heart of their discussions. The answer may not be clear for years.
And what about the Syrians whom Israel helped in various ways over the years, whose fate is now in Assad’s hands and who are begging for protection against a looming massacre? Israel has repeatedly announced that it won’t take in Syrian refugees, and will provide humanitarian aid only.
Netanyahu did say that one of his demands of Russia is ensuring the safety of residents of Syrian villages near Israel’s border. But what if Russia doesn’t? As noted, Israel has already said it doesn’t want to be a policeman.