by Mitchell Plitnick
On March 16, Israeli planes struck several targets in Syria. Israel said that it had targeted shipments of “advanced weapons” meant for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
These strikes occur from time to time, and there is usually little but fist-waving and statements from Syria in response. This time was different. Assad’s forces launched several missiles at the Israeli jets, none of which found their mark. More importantly, the next day, the new Israeli Ambassador to Russia was summoned by the Russian government for clarification of the incident.
This is significant beyond just the current state of affairs. As Michael Koplow aptly describes over at his blog, this incident is a symptom of an underlying clash of policy between Israel and Russia and there are likely to be more incidents of this nature in the future.
One thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proven to be adept at is balancing Israel on a thin line with other countries. Israel’s relationship with Russia is a good one, and has proven to be generally useful for both sides, but there are built-in tensions and disagreements. One of the biggest of these is their respective attitudes toward Iran, and this difference is bound to play out amidst Russia’s partnership with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s allies, Assad and Hezbollah.
As Koplow puts it, “No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides, the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.”
Yet it is precisely that tension that makes it imperative that Russia and Israel coordinate closely. Israel is willing to let the Syrian conflict play out for now, but they will not allow Hezbollah free rein to upgrade their armaments. Russia, for its part, will not help Israel in this endeavor, but they are willing to turn a blind eye when Israel acts on intelligence it mines, so long as the strikes are limited to the specific convoys.
That uneasy agreement is strained now. Israel is convinced, with good reason, that Iran intends to establish a permanent presence in Syria. That was why Netanyahu broached the subject of the United States recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights last month during his meeting with Donald Trump in Washington.
For Israel, a permanent Iranian role in Syria changes the parameters of the game. They will see this as Iran expanding its presence on Israel’s borders from Southern Lebanon (through Hezbollah) well into Syria. But for Russia, nothing has changed. Vladimir Putin is, as he has always been, intent on maintaining Russia’s regional foothold in Syria. For that, he probably needs Assad and certainly needs Iran.
As analyst Geoffrey Aronson points out, “If until now Putin has been able to contain the contradictions of a policy that accommodates Israel as well as its enemies, in the next phase of the battle this balancing act may not be so easy.”
From both Russia’s and Iran’s points of view, keeping Assad in some degree of power in Syria after the war ends is vital. Israel would probably be willing to see a weakened Assad remain, but not if a permanent Iranian presence is what is needed to prop him up. This creates a brittle situation that would test any leader.
The biggest unknown factor has now become the United States. Part of the Obama Administration’s strategy in its dealing with Iran on the issue of Iranian nuclear capabilities was to open a channel of communication with Tehran. Obama and John Kerry succeeded at that, but the Trump Administration has slammed that door, with the eager help of Congress.
For Trump, Syria is all about the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). He has been quietly escalating US involvement in Syria in a number of places, as Senator Chris Murphy detailed over the weekend. There seems to be no overarching goal to Trump’s actions in Syria other than the pursuits of the moment. That has unpleasant echoes of our early involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Murphy explains. But there may be other complications.
Helping in the fight against ISIS puts US forces squarely alongside those of Russia, Syria, and Iran. That’s consistent with some early statements from Trump about his desire to work with Russia in Syria. If Trump is sincere in his desire to improve relations with Russia—or, on the other hand, if he is as deeply in bed with Putin as many of his detractors believe—this could be a functional strategy. As much as people in the United States despise Assad and Iran, they are more afraid of ISIS than of anyone else. He can survive that politically.
But what happens when this fundamental policy disagreement between Russia and Israel comes to the fore? Given Trump’s early performance in office, it is hard to imagine that he has thought this issue through to that extent. Still, his UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, launched an early volley on this front, saying, “This is very much about a political solution now … and that basically means that Syria can no longer be a safe haven for terrorists. We’ve got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out. We’ve got to make sure that, as we move forward, we’re securing the borders for our allies as well.”
This will be an issue on which Israel must get clarity. Netanyahu is thus far surviving the worst political storms of his tenure in office, but he will not risk having to defend himself against charges that he allowed Iran to establish a permanent foothold on Israel’s very doorstep. Right now, he has no commitment at this stage from the Trump Administration that it would be willing to oppose Russian efforts to keep an Iranian presence in Syria, or, if it would oppose such a presence, how far it would be willing to go to block it.
The seeds for this problem are not only there, they are already growing. The Israel-Russia relationship remains intact, but the summoning of the Israeli ambassador by Russia suggests that tensions are growing. The United States will not be able to stay out of this, even if Trump weren’t deepening our involvement in Syria.
Worse, Trump’s own ambiguity and opaqueness about his policy regarding Israel and where the U.S. stands on the regional issues that surround the Jewish State only adds to the instability. Netanyahu cannot be sure how far Trump has his back in dealing with Putin. That, in turn, could lead to Netanyahu pushing the decision on Washington through his own actions, a dangerous gamble for everyone concerned.
Trump’s blustering style certainly cannot fill anyone with confidence, not even Netanyahu. Nonetheless, the job is his. There is room to find an accommodation here; Putin does not prioritize Israel’s needs as highly as Washington does, but he still values Israel’s friendship and seems to at least understand Israeli concerns. He will likely be willing to try to find some way for Iran to ensure Assad’s ability to govern at least part of Syria going forward while avoiding a confrontation with Israel.
But the United States will need to help broker this deal and it will be delicate work. Putin might negotiate, but he will not back off his bottom line of maintaining a solid Russian presence in Syria, his primary interest from the start of the upheavals there. Netanyahu, for his part, will need to be convinced that Iranian influence on Israel’s borders is being mitigated by Moscow’s restraint. Trump will need to work to satisfy these competing interests while also working to show he can take on ISIS.
A delicate and difficult task indeed, and neither delicate nor difficult has proven to be Trump’s forte.