It has not escaped everyone’s attention that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is now as frequent a visitor to Moscow as his Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. Netanyahu’s latest meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin took place just before the Russian president met with President Trump. In light of the remarks that both presidents made at their joint press conference, it is clear that Netanyahu’s message, to get Iran out of Syria, was one that seemed to resonate with both men.
Israel has been coordinating — or to be more accurate, de-conflicting — its operations in Syria with the Russians for some time. It provides Moscow with advance notice of its plans so as to avoid inflicting any Russian casualties in its attacks on Syrian and/or Iranian facilities. This practice is likely to continue as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad solidifies his hold on his country with ongoing Russian support. Moreover, Russia now has a long-term lease on the naval facility at Tartus, as well as a new, equally long-term lease on the Khemeimim air base, both in Syria, the first time Russia or its predecessor, the Soviet Union, has ever had a semi-permanent air base in the region. Jerusalem therefore recognizes that the Russians will not be going anywhere any time soon.
Netanyahu has thus far been unsuccessful in pressing Putin to somehow dislodge Iran’s fighters from their positions in Syria. On his most recent visit to Jerusalem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly offered to help push the Iranians back some 100 kilometers from the Golan Heights border; Netanyahu felt this was not enough. While it is not clear whether Russia would or even could push the Iranians back as far as 10 kilometers, the fact that Lavrov made the offer demonstrated Putin’s desire to be the primary go-between for Israel and Syria. President Trump’s expressed desire to pull America’s troops out of Syria, and America’s support for what is now clearly the losing side in the civil war, only underscore Putin’s importance to the Israelis.
It is ironic that the United States is really in no position to assist Israel in addressing its most serious and immediate threat. Iran’s presence in Syria represents a far greater danger than Palestinian rockets or burning kites, but America is slowly being frozen out of the Middle East. Consider that the Soviet Union had no relations with Israel after 1967, was unceremoniously expelled from Egypt in 1972, was viewed as a threat to Turkey, and evoked open hostility from the conservative Arab monarchies. Today, Russian-Israeli relations are far deeper than frequent meetings between the leaders of both countries. Indeed, Putin considers Russian Israelis to be his people. Russia and Egypt maintain cordial relations. Russia is selling highly capable S-400 air defense systems to Turkey, despite American objections to the sale. Finally, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, accompanied by a delegation 1,500 strong, made a historic four-day visit to Moscow this past October. It is Russia that is in many ways the region’s key power broker.
There is little doubt that Trump is a strong supporter of Israel. But while moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem might gladden the hearts of most Israelis, maintaining a powerful counterbalance to Russia, or indeed any other power inside or outside the Middle East, is far more important. As long as regional stability, the security of Washington’s Middle Eastern allies, and containment of both Iran and terrorism remain key concerns for the United States, the need for an active American role in the region is as important today as it has ever been.
By Dov S. Zakheim
Dov S. Zakheim served as a U.S. Under Secretary of Defense (2001-2004) and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (1985-87).