Analysis

Israel Stuck Between a Trump Rock and Putin Hard Place Over Syria Cease-fire

If Israel is looking for someone to blame it's not the U.S. but Russia, which publicly committed to taking Israel's security interests into account

Ruins in Daraa. southern Syria, July 2017.
Alaa al-Faqir / Reuters

The dispute between Israel and the U.S. administration regarding the agreement establishing a security zone in southern Syria is based on two arguments: that the United States and Russia didn’t take Israel’s security interests into account, and that the agreement firmly establishes Iran in Syria. As a result, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the agreement is bad and should be ditched.

Thus Israel is trying to be accepted as a partner in the war’s diplomatic and military solution. This completely contradicts its previous policy, which was to portray the war as none of its business, while more realistically trying to work behind the scenes by cultivating relationships with militias in southern Syria and the Syrian Golan Heights, and by taking part in talks in Jordan with Russian and U.S. officials on the security zones’ future. Now it’s positioning itself on the diplomatic firing line.

But before Netanyahu goes too far with a campaign that’s starting to look like his battle against the Iranian nuclear deal, remember that Iran’s standing in Syria isn’t being determined by this agreement, which has yet to go into effect and whose method of implementation isn’t clear. Iran has been diplomatically, economically and militarily present in Syria since before the civil war, and certainly in greater force over the past six years. Regular Iranian forces alongside Shi’ite militias funded and trained by Iran, as well as Hezbollah units, have been active in many areas of Syria for years.

On the other hand, instead of free, unobstructed activity by Iranian and pro-Iranian forces, the agreement is trying to demarcate the borders in which Iran can continue to operate. On this issue there have already been serious arguments between Iran and Russia, even though it looks like these two countries are cooperating. In general, Russia has restricted Iran on a few fronts in central Syria, gotten rid of Hezbollah in northern Syria with Turkey’s help, and established itself as the executor of the agreements creating the de-escalation zones, as the security zones are being called.

Following the cease-fire agreement born at the Hamburg summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and after the agreement was signed establishing a security zone in southern Syria, Syrian opposition sources reported that some of Hezbollah’s forces had withdrawn from Daraa and Suwayda and redeployed in the Hauran area. This withdrawal, which is part of the agreement, is aimed at meeting Jordan’s demand to pull Iranian forces at least 40 kilometers (25 miles) from its border with Syria. These forces are now a similar distance from the border with Israel in the Golan Heights.

Iran, which objected to having Russian military police monitoring the cease-fire and the southern security zone, as well as to having Suwayda and Quneitra made part of this security zone, was forced to accept the Russian diktat, which was agreed on with Washington. It did this so it could achieve  concessions in the security zone that will be established in central Syria and the Idlib area. Discussions on establishing these zones started this week.

A handout picture released on June 27, 2017 Syrian President Bashar Assad sitting inside a Sukhoi Su-27 during his visit to the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, Syria.
-/AFP

The agreement on the zone in southern Syria was part of an arrangement involving Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Russia and the United States, even if Israel isn’t an official member, in which each country had demands that had to be considered. For example, Turkey will be forced to yield involvement in overseeing the central and southern security zones in exchange for a role in overseeing the northern security zone, the one most important to it. Iran yielded on direct oversight in the southern zone and agreed to withdraw some of its forces to solidify its standing in central and southeastern Syria, along the border with Iraq.

This is where the new regional power equation lies, in which Russia, not the United States, may be the boss in Syria, but Iran and Turkey also have powerful positions that can help or undermine Russia’s ability to carry out its strategy. By the way, Iran is for the first time getting a say in these regional conflicts, a say that the great powers must take into account as they seek a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.

By objecting to the agreement, and especially by portraying it as Washington backtracking on its commitments to Israel and even as an American blunder, Israel is weaving itself into a balance of power where its position is inferior, mainly because of Washington’s policy in Syria. Trump considers this agreement a diplomatic achievement because it broke the deadlock in his relations with Putin. But Trump, at least according to his declarations so far, has no interest in having U.S. troops help manage the security zones. By signing the agreement he gave Russia a permit to implement the agreement alone.

Israel decrying this agreement won’t make Trump abandon it, but it could put Israel on a collision course with the administration. If Israel is looking for someone to blame it’s Moscow, which publicly committed to taking Israel’s security interests into account and even let Israel attend the talks in Jordan on the security zones. This comes on top of the “permission” it gave Israel to operate in Syrian airspace against weapons convoys bound for Hezbollah.

The problem is, Israel can’t fire barbs at Russia. On the other hand, a disagreement with the United States over Syria that makes it look as if Israel has been harmed by U.S. policy could yield benefits in other areas.