Israel’s prime minister was in Moscow Thursday to talk with Russia’s president about the Syrian crisis, the latest sign of Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East as well as Israel’s concerns over Moscow’s regional allies.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin made no joint statement following the talks, but Netanyahu later issued a statement indicating he had “made it clear” to Putin that Israel wants to prevent any Syrian settlement from leaving “Iran and its proxies with a military presence” in Syria.
Russia has come to assume a larger role in Israel’s foreign policy calculations since the Kremlin’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015.
While Putin at the time justified Russia’s actions as taking the fight to global terrorists and the Islamic State, Western critics argue the intervention was also aimed at salvaging the government of besieged Moscow’s ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s wider role
It’s that later mission that many in the West, begrudgingly, agree has succeeded — for now.
Russia’s role in helping Assad’s forces take the rebel city of Aleppo in December 2016, in particular, signaled a key turning point in the war.
In particular, Israel is nervous about the prospect of Iranian military forces gaining a permanent foothold in the Israeli-held border region of the Golan Heights.
“Russia has made a very important contribution,” said Netanyahu in a statement acknowledging Russia’s efforts against Islamic State targets in Syria.
In addition to their support of the Assad regime, she points to economic and Russian weapons sales to Iran as fueling the current partnership.
But it’s a relationship, Gevorkyan said, built on pragmatism above all else.
“Can Putin promise Netanyahu to raise the issue with the Iranians? Yes, he can. And the Iranians might well agree, if they see it in their interests,” she said.
That relationship, too, has seen its ups and downs surrounding the Syrian war.
Late last year, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was gunned down in public by a Turkish assassin. Before being shot by police, the gunman said he was avenging Russia’s role in the Aleppo siege.
The murder underscored the complexity of Moscow’s current political pivot from its role as backer of the Syrian regime to the primary mediator in the Syrian conflict.
Talks in Kazakhstan
While results have thus far proved minimal, few doubt Russia is eager to show it can deliver what Western powers could not: a resolution to the vexing six-year conflict.
The next phase of talks in Astana is to resume next week.
Yet largely missing from the equation has been Washington.
The Obama administration had what critics saw as an on-again, off-again engagement on the Syrian issue.
Yet the American president has pulled back on cooperating with Russia amid multiple investigations into Russian interference in the American election, allegedly on Trump’s behalf.
In Moscow, the scandal has fed a sense that, whatever Trump’s wishes, the American leader may prove unable to pursue an alliance he claims to want in the interests of his own political survival.