Putin and Netanyahu: Converging Interests?

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by Mark N. Katz

In the wake of President Trump’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear accord and the direct clashes between Israeli and Iranian forces in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and watch a parade. They also talked, of course, but both sides have been remarkably tight-lipped about what was said (or at least, what Putin said) and what, if anything, was agreed to. This could be because, although Russia and Israel appear to disagree strongly, their interests regarding Syria, Iran, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are actually more convergent. Moscow, though, does not wish to draw too much attention to this convergence.

Netanyahu has long opposed the Iranian nuclear accord, claiming that Tehran fully intends to acquire nuclear weapons. It is only using the agreement, he argues, as a means both to “lull into complacency” the West and others about Iran’s nuclear program and to motivate America and the West to overlook Iran’s regional ambitions and hostility toward Israel in order to preserve the nuclear accord. And with the Assad regime’s internal opponents largely defeated, Netanyahu is increasingly concerned that Iran and its allies (Hezbollah and other Shi’a militias) will turn their attention toward targeting Israel. Thus, Netanyahu both called for and welcomed Trump’s announcement that the U.S. is withdrawing from the JCPOA. Trump’s move may even have emboldened Netanyahu to strike Iranian targets in Syria.

Under Putin, by contrast, Russia was one of the six countries that negotiated the JCPOA. After Trump’s announcement, Putin (like many European and other leaders) called for the continued observance of the JCPOA. Moscow has also called Iran a partner in the war on terror against jihadists in Syria and elsewhere. The differences between Putin and Netanyahu with regard to Iran, then, appear to be quite stark.

But appearances can be deceiving. Trump’s pullout from the JCPOA when America’s European allies want it to continue is causing a rift within the West that Putin sees as something that Russia can exploit. AlthoughPutin does not share Netanyahu’s vision of Iran as an existential threat, Netanyahu’s urging of Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA and thereby cause a rift between the U.S. and Europe has been both useful and welcome.

Israeli attacks in Syria, of course, could damage Russian interests. But as both Russian and Israeli press accounts have reported, Israel informed Russia about the attacks it would make as per the Russian-Israeli de-confliction agreement. By doing so, Israel avoided doing any harm to Russians present in Syria. But it also showed that, although Israel considers the Iranian presence in Syria threatening, it does not regard the Russian presence there as such. Further, Israel informing Russia about its pending attack on Syria demonstrates that Netanyahu respects Russia and Putin in particular.

Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria may also be useful for Moscow. The battle to decide the fate of the Assad regime, after all, is largely over. Assad and his Russian, Iranian, and other allies have prevailed. The question now arises as to what happens to that alliance. Victorious alliances often fracture after the common goal has been achieved and the erstwhile allies pursue different, competing goals. Although unable and probably unwilling to eliminate each other’s presence in Syria completely, Moscow and Tehran both want to gain the upper hand there and have the other play a subordinate role.

Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria have the advantage of weakening Iran vis-à-vis Russia inside Syria without Moscow having to confront Tehran directly. And Tehran does have ambitions in Syria that Moscow does not share. For Tehran, preserving the Assad regime is not just an end in itself, but a means for Iran to better support Hezbollah in Lebanon in its conflict with Israel. Russia, by contrast, has strong economic and security ties to Israel that it wants to continue and expand. Moscow does not want Iran to disturb this, or create sufficient problems for Israel that the U.S. gets back into the Syrian conflict in Israel’s defense.

Yet Putin does not want Israel to become so aggressive in Syria that Putin is forced to do something to defend its Iranian allies or appear complicit with Israel by doing nothing to stop it. Putin’s threat of delivering S-300 air defense missiles to Assad—originally made after the recent U.S. missile attack on Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons against its opponents—might serve to prevent this. According to Israeli press accounts, Netanyahu specifically asked Putin not to transfer these weapons to Syria. Putin’s response has not been reported. Perhaps he prefers to keep Netanyahu in doubt about how Moscow will respond if Israel presses its attacks on Iranian targets.

Putin, though, may not succeed in this. Although Putin’s and Netanyahu’s interests with regard to Syria may be convergent, they are not identical. Putin wants Iran to remain in Syria as a junior partner in propping up the Assad regime but not acting provocatively otherwise. Netanyahu not only wants Iran out of Syria, but may even join U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and other hawks in seeking regime change in Tehran. If so, the Putin-Netanyahu tactical alliance will not last.

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Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, was recently the 2018 Sir William Luce Fellow at Durham University in the UK. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com

8 Comments

  1. So this prove Russia and Israel was behind Donald Trumps election Democrats were right all long.

  2. @ “In the wake of … the direct clashes between Israeli and Iranian forces in Syria …”

    One must be careful about early reports of battles in wars. Iran claims it did not fire the missiles that Israel responded to and the Syrian government says that it fired the weapons itself. Israel has long been attempting to provoke the U.S. into a war against Iran and has every reason to lie about this, so I’m inclined to give the Syrian and Iranian positions initial credence.

    @ “And Tehran does have ambitions in Syria that Moscow does not share. For Tehran, preserving the Assad regime is not just an end in itself, but a means for Iran to better support Hezbollah in Lebanon in its conflict with Israel.”

    That’s oft-repeated in Israeli propaganda but not in fact a critical factor. Lebanon faces the Mediterranean and ship transport of supplies for Hezbollah has worked so far. Far more important to Tehran is completion of the planned Iran-Iraq-Syria “Friendship Pipeline,” which will enable Iran to market its abundant natural gas in Europe.

  3. Is the author, as academic person convinced with evidence that a chemical attack has happens in Syria that enables him to present it as a fact here? Unfortunately in the science of lying or politics seems that the lies could becom fact by repeating. Who cares? Believe it or not, this is called a science and these are scientists and think tanks!

  4. OR … Putin in his heart is an appeaser and hopes that by looking the other way the storm will pass.

    Even in his own backyard, Putin has taken a minimalist approach in the Caucasus in juggling Russia’s relationship with Armenia vs Azerbaijan. He looked the other way when Turkey assassinated one of his pilots, in that case his patience did pay off, a success that is breeding future failure. Contrary to popular belief, Putin took a minimalist approach in Ukraine. During Maidan, he could have reinstated yanukovych, or recognized Donbas and made it a Russian protectorate.

    Oh, and the author assumes that Israel is attacking ‘Iranian’ targets in Syria. How do we know that, because Netanyahu says so? Netanyahu has ordered attacks on Syria hundreds of times including proper Syrian army targets and given direct support to Syrian rebels. He has also stated, ‘when your enemies are fighting, the best thing to do is to let them fight’ (I can’t forget the evil smirk on his face, he was expecting the interviewer to laugh at his ‘joke’).

    Putin obsessively refers to his rivals as his partners and has ignored numerous infractions against Russians like the killing of citizens in Syria and the sacking of his Embassies in the U.S.

  5. Your conclusion is right. Israel and Russia do not share the same vision. Israel wants to make a chaos of the Middle East. It is well on its way to succeed. The only remaining force is Iran. It will be destroyed under a pretext, a false flag operation. Once Iran is destroyed, Syria will crumble. Putin will not risk Moscow to save Damascus. But, his relationship with Netanyahu will take another coloration.

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