The Problem Is Putin, Not the Missiles

Israel and Syria are now at the center of the great strategic game between Russia and the United States.

The hysteria over the expected arms deal between Russia and Syria should be directed elsewhere. Israel may indeed find it harder to strike Syria every time it feels like "sending a message" to Damascus. What should worry Jerusalem more, however, is the fact that it, and Syria, are now at the center of the great strategic game between Russia and the United States.

Russia is one of two countries - the other is China - indirectly placing hurdles before most UN Security Council proposals for sanctions on Iran. Russia built the nuclear reactor in Bushehr, and signed a $4 billion deal to sell aerial defense equipment to the Islamic Republic, in order to thwart an American or Israeli attack.

Russian giant Gazprom signed a massive contract with Iran's national oil concern to develop oil fields in the province of Fars, where half the country's reserves are located. The company has also agreed on a contract to build refinement facilities. Now, with tension growing between Russia and the United States over the deployment of an American missile defense system in Europe, Iran is falling into Russia's sphere of influence and becoming one of its most valuable bargaining chips.

The Kremlin is expected to pursue a policy of support for Iran based not only on economic interests, but also strategic considerations - gaining a foothold in the Middle East, and sidelining America and Israel in dictating the region's geopolitical tenor. That foothold extends beyond Moscow's erasure of Syria's $3.7 billion debt - Russia has also reached out to Iraq and other Arab states. Russia is making efforts to convince the Iraqi government, which is supported by Washington, to allow it to lay an oil pipeline from Iraq to Syria.

Iraq has yet to approve the request, but it has agreed to supply Syria with oil. This makes it Syria's most important economic ally, as Syrian oil reserves are dwindling. Someone will have to build the pipeline, and considering Iraq's political and religious ties with Iran, and Russia's tight embrace of Tehran, it will be surprising if Moscow does not ultimately receive the contract. In the meantime, Russia has signed several pricey oil drilling deals in Iraq, and erased much of Baghdad's debt, most of it accumulated during Saddam Hussein's reign.

Israel can stamp its feet in protest against Russia's policy, "watch with concern" as Syrian President Bashar Assad visits Moscow, and frame the cancellation of an Israeli tank sale to Georgia as "good" for Russia, mandating a favor from Moscow.

The danger, however, is that Israel will adopt its traditional policy of following the Americans' Middle East policy without examining its own strategic abilities in the greater game. Accelerating negotiations with Syria and convincing Washington to participate in the process would be a good start. Not so that Assad will suddenly start supporting Georgia or cut Syria's ties with Iran, but to give Washington a base to show the world that it can make peace in the region, not only war.

It will be increasingly harder for Israel to demand that Russia stop supplying weapons to Syria, or to place conditions on Russia's cooperation with Iran, as long as Israel itself is perceived as an immediate threat to Syria. Israel, which for once is conducting negotiations (with Damascus) at a time when it is not under threat, is not in a position to stop talks when a far more ominous threat is emerging from Tehran. Israel needs to be a player in this game - not to retire to the corner of the wounded or afraid.