Analysis |

Russia May Call Shots in Syria, but U.S. Mideast Dominance Remains Unchallenged

New study suggests U.S. downplays the challenges facing Israel in Syria, while Jerusalem may not fully appreciate the race between the superpowers

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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File photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall to chair a meeting of the State Council in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, April 5, 2018.
File photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall to chair a meeting of the State Council in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, April 5, 2018.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Russia is continuing to maneuver between Israel and Iran. This week, within the space of a few hours, the Kremlin announced a series of planned separate meetings between President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu – who has been hoping to receive an invitation to Moscow ever since the incident of the downing of the Ilyushin in Syrian airspace last September – and with Iranian President Hassan Rohani. As the separatist sentiments expressed by United States President Donald Trump grow ever louder, so Moscow’s image as being able to dictate processes in the Middle East grows stronger.

The relations between Israel, Russia and the United States, in light of the changes in the region, will be discussed next Tuesday at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s Institute for Policy and Strategy, headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad. There will be a presentation at the conference of a joint study by the center and the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which specializes on the topic of Russia, about the implications of Russia’s increased involvement in the Middle East.

>> Read more: Why the rebuilding of Syria isn’t going to happenIn its battle against Iran, Israel is dependent on Russia's plans for Syria

Gilad told Haaretz that the two institutes believe Russia aims to return to its historical stature as a global power. According to Gilad, the Russian policy poses a number of challenges both to Israel and to the United States and is threatening their interests and their foreign policy aims. In light of (and perhaps despite) Russia’s intervention in favor of Trump in the 2016 presidential election that is now being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, the relations between the two countries are at a low point relative to the past several decades.

There was no shortage of other reasons, such as the aggressive Russian policy of the last several years – the invasions in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the meddling in internal matters of Western countries and the competition between powers in which Russia is returning to the Middle East, from which it has been pushed out gradually after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The Russian move in the region is focusing primarily on Syria but also on Egypt, Libya and the Gulf states. However, according to Gilad, aside from Syria, Russia has not yet succeeded in achieving its aspiration to have veto power over future developments, and it is far from truly threatening American dominance in the region.

Moscow, he says, is positioning itself as a mediator between rival players in the region. Russia’s assertiveness in Syria and its cooperation with Iran are liable to increase in the wake of Trump’s declaration about taking American forces out of Syria. In these circumstances, Israel is facing a strategic challenge of the first degree: On the one hand, an Iranian attempt to establish a second front in Syria, and on the other hand Russian constraints on its ability to prevent development of the strategic threat.

The Israeli researchers and their American counterparts identify differences in approach between the United States and Israel with regard to the current Russian policy. Washington understands Israel’s tactical need for coordination with the Russians, but underestimates the Israeli need to stay in close contact with Russia to maintain its freedom of action in Syria.

Moreover, there are those in Washington who see the chummier relations between Netanyahu and Putin as Israeli aid to Russia’s projection of power in the region, at the expense of the Americans. Gilad says that the Americans tend to underestimate the strength of the needs of small countries to take a pragmatic approach, adding that the strategic challenge that is posed to Israel by the Russian entrenchment is greater than the challenge it poses to the United States.

Israel, adds Gilad, must deal “tactically and strategically with a new force on its border, in a way that is almost incomprehensible to the Americans.” For Israel, he says, the strategic alliance is a cornerstone of its national security. “Israel understands the strategic challenge Russia and China present to the U.S., and limits its relationship with them accordingly. However, it may not be sensitive enough to the centrality of the inter-power competition in the context of the American national security doctrine.”

The Israeli institute recommends strengthening the communication channels between Jerusalem and Washington concerning Russia, and pursuing high-level strategic dialogue on the issue. Gilad warns that if the two countries do not find ways to deepen their discourse regarding Russia, the differences in perception and the gaps in understanding are liable to grow deeper. According to Gilad, Israel must make it clear to all sides that it is determined to prevent the development of a strategic threat from Syria and that thwarting Iran’s efforts while avoiding friction with Russia is a supreme Israeli national interest. Israel has to receive from the Americans freedom to act vis-a-vis Russia in accordance with its security interests and it must aspire to maintain America’s strategic backing for its moves in Syria, with regard to Iran’s activity in the region in general, including in the nuclear arena. At the same time, Israel must continue to show full transparency to the American administration concerning its relations with Russia.

In addition, Gilad proposes considering a deal: Recognition of Russia’s special role in Syria in return for pushing Iran and its extensions from the country. In another matter, which has come up for discussion recently in the Israeli political arena, he recommends refraining from raising the possibility of annexing the Golan Heights to Israel, which is liable, in his opinion, to arouse Russian objections and American discomfort.

Despite its economic weakness, in recent years Moscow has succeeded in leveraging military activity and aggression in various arenas to increase its international power. Is Russia indeed again a nearly omnipotent giant, as it appeared to be in the early days of the Cold War? Journalist Masha Gessen, a native of Russia who has written an excellent biography of Putin, wrote in The New Yorker this week that many Russian citizens are looking on in disbelief at the reports of the progress of the Mueller investigation. The thought that the Kremlin led such a sophisticated move to intervene in favor of Trump is not easy for them to accept because they regularly encounter the Russian authorities’ ineptitude everywhere they look on the domestic front.

Test of values

Perhaps it’s a manifestation of the Israeli public’s general move to the right, which is also reflected in the public opinion surveys, and perhaps it’s a by-product of the election race that is looking to be stormy. The media discussion in recent weeks, as well as some of the statements by politicians, are putting to the test a number of the values professedly held dear by the Israel Defense Forces and other security branches – from the attempt to distinguish between enemy fighters and civilians during battle, to backing the actions of subordinates.

The first target – who will undoubtedly be subjected to many more arrows – is former chief of staff Benny Gantz. Even before stepping into the political arena, Gantz spoke at a conference held by Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, an organization that specializes in filing civil suits in the United States against terrorist organizations. Gantz spoke there about an incident that occurred in Khan Yunis during Operation Protective Edge: Palestinian snipers fired on Golani soldiers from inside a hospital building. The IDF blew up the building, but only after confirming with the Palestinians that the patients and staff had been evacuated. Gantz said he was proud of his decision, even though the delay entailed endangering the lives of the soldiers. “I feel that I am on the right side morally, not only strategically. It is necessary to continue like this, even if it sometimes makes life difficult for us,” he said.

This decision, which obviously conformed to the rules of international law, was enough to arouse a wave of attacks on him from Likud Knesset members and activists of various right-wing parties. On Channel 20 they decided to ride the momentum and conjured up remarks by another former chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, when he was still a major general, at a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies. Eisenkot spoke about similar considerations: Evacuation of Lebanese civilians from Dahiyeh, a Shi’ite neighborhood of Beirut, during the first days of the Second Lebanon War, before the air force knocked down multistory buildings where Hezbollah command centers had been set up. “This testifies to morality,” he argued.

The pair of moderators who related to his remarks disagreed with him. They said his statement testified to “stupidity, lack of morality, hesitancy.” All this has to change, they said. And who knows – maybe it is already changing.

The backing of subordinates has also been eroded to some extent in the fervor of the political disagreements. Every section of the right is trying to depict Gantz as a leftist, a wimpy Arab-lover and a failed commander. His functioning in Protective Edge, which was discussed here extensively last week, is the least of it.

Now the denouncers are also harking back to the Joseph’s Tomb affair in Nablus in October 2000. Gantz, at the time the commander of the regional division, is being depicted today as the main person responsible for the abandonment of wounded border policeman Madhat Yusuf, who bled to death while waiting for rescue that did not arrive because the military establishment was expecting help from the Palestinian Authority. This, even though together with Gantz at the lookout post on Mount Gerizim were the IDF chief of staff and head of Central Command, along with a representative of the Shin Bet security service, all of them his superiors in the chain of command.

Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet at the start of the second intifada, chalked up a political success this week when he was elected to the 11th spot on the Likud slate for the Knesset. Dichter is definitely one of the more level-headed and fair-minded people on that list. Yet even he lost some self-control during primaries month. It’s not just the ridiculous video in which he dressed up as a Palestinian going back to the Muqata in Ramallah and teaching Abu Mazen – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – a lesson. At the height of the controversy over Gantz and Joseph’s Tomb, Dichter took care to clarify over Twitter that it wasn’t he, but rather his deputy, who was on the mountain on the day of the incident at Joseph’s tomb.

Is Dichter trying to claim that as head of the Shin Bet, he did not take part at all in the decision-making process? Did his deputy act on his own? This was a demonstration of evasiveness, pretense of innocence and passing the buck that certainly arouses a great deal of discomfort among Shin Bet people, retired and active.

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