Netanyahu Has a Friend in Moscow. Until He Doesn’t

The World Holocaust Forum – dozens of leaders, prime ministers and senior officials from around the globe – that convened this week in Jerusalem, marginalized the Holocaust. For Israelis at least, it was overshadowed by the issue of the release of Naama Issachar, which developed into the decisive test of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic skills, and above all focused the spotlight on the amount of influence he wields over Russian President Vladimir Putin. Were his efforts to induce Putin to pardon Issachar, who was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for possessing 9.6 grams of hashish, successful? Would the frequent visits Netanyahu made to Russia in the past two years help do the trick?

When it comes to Israel, Russia doesn’t really need a cyberattack to have an impact on an election: The arrest and release of an Israeli citizen are enough to tilt the scales in the prime minister’s favor. But there are a number of truly critical issues pending in Israel-Russia relations – and not only the “liberation” of the Russian Compound in Jerusalem or a change in Israel’s border-control policy toward visitors from Russia.

The military coordination in the Syrian arena is a sensitive topic that is being dealt with very carefully, requiring constant maintenance so that Israel can continue to maneuver between attack operations in Syria and not hindering Russia’s ambition to complete President Bashar Assad’s effort to regain control of the whole of his country. The cooperation seems to be working without any hitches – if we don’t treat the downing of that Russian plane with Syrian missiles in September 2018 as a hitch in coordination with Israel.

An agreed-upon balance has been forged between Russia and Israel, and between the two of them and Iran, by which Israel is able to go on attacking targets whose purpose is to aid Hezbollah, such as convoys of missiles and other weapons or bases from which Iran dispatches arms. Attacking Iranian targets in Syria is considered legitimate as long as Israel can argue convincingly that they are involved in Iran’s delivery of weapons and other materiel to its proxy, Hezbollah. Indeed, Russia apparently prefers to view the military dialogue between Israel and Iran as a matter to which it’s not a party, provided that the attacks are coordinated with the liaison officers of the Russian air force who are stationed at the Khmeimim airbase in northwestern Syria. The coordination raises an intriguing question about the trust between the Russian and Israeli air forces, as each such attack also holds out a risk for the latter of advance information about the planned strike being conveyed between the Russian forces and the Iranian command and the Syrian air force.

An Israeli source involved in the coordination arrangements confirmed to Haaretz that this danger does exist. However, he added, the method is that “if Russia wants to prevent an Israeli attack in a certain area or at a certain time, it says so explicitly and does not play games. All told, our impression is that Russia does not intend to intervene in Israeli activity against Hezbollah and that its considerations are not related solely to the Israeli-Iranian conflict. But there is no guarantee that we won’t see a shift in Russia’s policy regarding the Israeli attacks, if the circumstances change and a political solution to the war in Syria is found.”

Israel’s working assumption was that Russia itself would like not only to see Iran removed physically from Syria, but also for Iran’s influence on the Assad regime to be reduced. Russia’s military intervention in Syria, beginning in 2015, was not intended only to leave a sympathetic and cooperative regime intact, but also to leverage military support to obtain a foothold in the Middle East. But Russia inherited a situation in which Iran was Assad’s ally, granting it billions of dollars-worth of aid and credit. The result is that in the diplomatic realm, Russia, in attempting to bring about the restoration of Assad’s complete control in Syria, is compelled to maneuver between Turkey and Iran.

Moscow exploited its advantage over Iran and Turkey, and was able to persuade some Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrein and Sudan, to renew diplomatic relations with Damascus. But its more significant achievement appears to lie in its success in arranging a meeting this month, in Moscow, between the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, and his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamlouk. The reports that emerged from the meeting, the first such since 2011 and taking place in spite of Turkey’s takeover of parts of northwestern Syria, suggest that even if the two countries did not reach an agreement on the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory, the very fact that the encounter took place might indicate a change of direction by Ankara toward the Assad regime.