Monday, July 23, 2018

Helsinki: Israel, Syria and Iran - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Despite U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin's commitments to Israel's security, neither will do the job of removing Iran from Syria for it.

The summit convened by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki triggered bombastic headlines, mostly negative, from the usual cadre of Trump detractors in the media; but also from his supporters, who expected him to take a hard line against Russia. Trump though, unrestrained by Cold War grudges, wasn't looking for a fight, rather for cooperation.

In this vein, the two leaders were in complete agreement over their commitment to Israel's security – each for his own reason. This commitment isn't lip service – both Trump and Putin demonstrate it in their own way: Trump, in the boundless support and backing he provides Israel; and Putin, in the warmth and sympathy he shows Jerusalem, and mainly in his willingness to allow Israel freedom to operate in Syria. This willingness does not go without saying, and supposedly contradicts Russian interests in Syria.

While the rest of the world focused on what Trump did or didn't say to Putin, about Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential elections, in the Middle East the media focused on the two leaders' amenity to Israel. Without a doubt, the sense that the U.S. and Russia are standing alongside Israel, much like they did on the eve of the vote for Israel's independence at the United Nations in 1947, enhances it in the eyes of its enemies.

The two leaders also agreed on the matter of Syria's future. Both can come to terms – either enthusiastically, for lack of a better option or indifference – with Syrian President Bashar Assad winning the war and remaining in power. This was Putin's goal from the beginning, when he chose to support a close ally and block radical Islam from seizing control of the region. But it appears the Americans, too, under Obama and now Trump, won't go out of their way to oust Assad. From the outset Washington never had much economic or political interest in Syria. Its involvement only came after the rise of Islamic State and was only aimed at fighting it and the terror it disseminated across the globe.

Hence the undeclared understandings reached by Trump and Putin, whereby Assad will continue ruling Syria but both superpowers will work to ensure that its doesn't morph into a launching pad for threats against Israel.

Alongside this, however, is the actual reality on the ground. In Syria, Assad has completed his march of victory and last weekend he returned to the Quneitra region and Israel's border. And although the same Assad, like his father before him, made sure to always preserve complete quiet along the border with Israel, it's safe to assume the Iranians and perhaps even Hezbollah fighters will follow in Assad's wake and take up positions along the Israeli frontier.

To be sure, it must be said that despite the supposed chemistry between Putin and Trump, Russia and the U.S. are still adversaries. There remains a giant chasm separating the two and they fight on behalf of contradicting and competing interests across the globe. Such is the case in the Far East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and even on U.S. soil.

For this reason, Russia still needs Iran – not just to ensure its victory in Syria but as a vital partner in its regional and international fight with the United States. Therefore, alongside its commitment to Israel, Russia will continue to pursue cooperation with Iran and it is doubtful it will want to or be able to keep the Islamic republic out of Syria.

And while Israel is happy over Trump and Putin's positive sentiments, it must still prepare to continue countering Iran's presence in Syria. Indeed, neither Russia nor the U.S. will stop Israel in this fight, but they won't do the job of removing the Iranians from Syria either.

Prof. Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.


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