Do Netanyahu and Putin see eye to eye on Iran?

Now that the civil war in Syria is winding down, it remains unclear if Russia will force Iran out of the region or continue to placate Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.

At this week’s government cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reported on his meeting last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu flew to Moscow on Wednesday to discuss Israel’s interest in removing Iranian forces from Syria and disallowing any continued Iranian presence there.

This is considered to be a significant development or rather, restoration, in the relationship between the two countries, as this was Netanyahu’s first meeting with Putin since an incident in September when, while retaliating over an Israeli airstrike, Syrian forces shot down a Russian military plane, killing 15. Syria blamed Israel, and the incident caused a somewhat high level of tension between Jerusalem and Moscow.

In his report on Sunday, Netanyahu said that he and Putin “agreed on a shared goal—the removal from Syria of the foreign forces that came in after the civil war erupted. We agreed to set up a joint task force which, together with others, will work to advance toward this goal,” said Netanyahu.

But Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute focusing on Russia’s policy towards the Middle East, does not think it will be as simple as Netanyahu described, telling JNS, “Moscow, in reality, has neither the ability nor desire to get Iran out of Syria.”

She said that what Moscow does want “is for everyone to be weaker than it is, and to be dependent on it so if Israeli strikes weaken Iran, it also helps Putin.”

After Russia’s entry into the Syrian Civil War in 2015, Israel and Russia established a mechanism of cooperation in order to avoid inadvertent conflict between their armed forces operating in Syria. However, tensions have been high since the incident last September, as well as Israel’s concern that Iran will establish a permanent presence in Syria.

For its part, Russia has relied on Iranian forces allied with the Syrian regime to help defeat rebel forces in the country. Now that the civil war is winding down, it remains unclear if Russia will force Iran out of the region or continue to placate Israel.

When it comes to Putin, ‘appearance is not reality’

Zvi Magen, who previously served as Israel’s ambassador to the Ukraine and Russia, and is now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS he believes that Russia prefers to have Iran out of Syria and “agreed to cooperate with Israel to achieve this goal.”

Magen said that a joint committee will work on this topic, and “probably, there will not be limits about Israeli actions in Syria.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “there exists an opposition against Israel in Russia, as well as problems with Iran. However, I don’t see any special abilities of Putin to press Netanyahu more than he has already done.”

Borshchevskaya noted that Putin wants to be seen as a peacemaker, “but appearance is not reality.”

Observing that Iranian entrenchment in Syria is deep and difficult to remove, she also pointed to recent reports of Hezbollah using a Russian flag as a cover from Israeli airstrikes as “especially interesting.” Naturally, Israel will find it difficult and risky to attack Hezbollah forces hiding behind Russian cover.

And while according to Borshchevskaya, “Putin’s approach to the Middle East was always pragmatic, ‘friends with everyone,’ ” the problem for Israel is that it needs Putin squarely on its side to fight Iranian aggression and the Islamic Republic’s ambitions to build a military presence in Syria, in addition to a land corridor stretching all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

But this may prove difficult, and Borshchevskaya cautioned that Putin “always leaned more on the Shi’ite forces in the region, which are anti-American.”

His strategy in Syria is “predicated on a partnership with Iran,” she said. “Moscow controls the Syrian skies and, theoretically, at least, could limit Israeli freedom of action if it wanted to.”

At the end of the day, Borshchevskaya said, “Putin is no one’s friend but his own, and when push comes to shove, he will look out for the Kremlin’s interest, as he defines it. Dependence on the Kremlin is just what Putin wants.”

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