The Syrian drone intercepted by the Israel Defense Forces inside Israeli territory on July 11 serves as a reminder of the reality unfolding on our northern border: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army is preparing to retake the Syrian Golan Heights, and Israel feels it even more necessary to show Russian President Vladmir Putin respect.
The Israel Defense Forces understands that mistakenly shooting down a Russian drone just hours ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin in Moscow would do little to extract from the Russian leader further commitment to Israel’s security needs in light of recent developments inside Syria.
This was Putin and Netanyahu’s third meeting since the start of the year, and despite the smiles, handshakes and cordial atmosphere, there is a sense of frustration in Jerusalem at Russia’s lack of desire or ability to remove Iran and its satellites from the Syrian arena.
The Syrian army’s victories against the rebels in the southwest of the country in recent weeks illustrate this point well. Despite assurance and secret agreements between the United States, Russia, Jordan and Israel, Iranian advisers and pro-Iranian militias took part in the offensive to retake the area, which was carried out with the help of massive air strikes by Russia’s air force.
Furthermore, according to witness testimony, members of Hezbollah’s elite units were responsible for planning and leading the campaign to defeat the rebels in Daraa province, and assisted the Syrian army in its takeover of the border crossing with Jordan. (They just made sure to don Syrian army fatigues so as not to “evoke Israel’s anger.”) Who then will guarantee those same pro-Iranian forces, whether covert or overt, will not be partners to the next phase of the campaign to put Assad back in power in the Golan Heights?
On the eve of his departure for Moscow, Netanyahu reiterated his demand the Iranians and their allies be expelled from Syria. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already made clear Russia sees this demand as “unrealistic.” In other words, they will remain in Syria as long as Assad wants them around.
Assuming Israel isn’t interested in embarking on a military campaign against the Iranians in Syria, Jerusalem may have to make do with much less; in other words, distancing Shi’ite elements dozens of kilometers from the border in the Golan Heights and ensuring Assad’s forces, which Israel tacitly agreed to allow to return to the buffer zone, adhere to the 1974 Israel-Syria Separation of Forces Agreement.
While it may be possible to enlist Putin’s support for this, under the current circumstances, identifying and preventing the absorption of Shi’ite elements within the Syrian army in the Golan will prove difficult. In this context, Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin in Moscow is important. One can only hope the Russian leader’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki later this month will contribute something that can help change the reality unfolding in Syria.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.