By James M. Dorsey
With Israel set to host an unprecedented meeting of the national security advisors of the United States, Russia and Israel, this week’s efforts by German foreign minister Heiko Maas and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to mediate between the US and Iran could prove to be a sideshow.
The meeting of the national security advisors, against the backdrop of Syrian and Russian forces pummelling the northern region of Idlib, the last major stronghold of Syrian rebels, takes on added significance with strains emerging in relations between Moscow and Tehran.
Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced in the latest attacks that have not shied away from targeting hospitals and residential areas.
In what may be marching orders for his national security advisor, John Bolton, US President Donald J. Trump tweeted last week: “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are bombing the hell out of Idlib Province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians. The World is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!”
While few expect the advisors’ meeting this month in Jerusalem to produce immediate results, US and Israeli officials hope that it could prepare the ground for a deal that would further weaken Russian ties to Iran and reduce, if not terminate Iran’s presence in Syria.
Among multiple scenarios being bounced around, some analysts believe that a possible deal could involve Russia pushing Iran out of Syria, a key US and Israeli demand, in exchange for the lifting of at least some American and European sanctions against Russia and US acceptance of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu rejected a similar Russian proposal last November.
“The fact that the Russians see value in these conversations, that they’re willing to do it publicly, I think is in and of itself quite significant. And so we are hopeful that they’re coming to the meeting with some fresh proposals that will allow us to make progress,” said a senior Trump administration official.
The officials suggest that a recent Russian refusal to sell Iran its most advanced S-400 missile defense system because that could fuel regional tensions and tacit Russian acquiescence to Israeli military strikes against Iranian and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah targets in Syria opens the door to a potential deal.
Mr. Bolton’s discussions with Israeli national security advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and Nikolay Patrushev, head of Russia’s security council, could not come at worse moment for Iran as it struggles to dampen the effect of harsh US sanctions following the Trump administration’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
Analysts Udi Dekel and Carmit Valensi argued in a report published last month by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) that despite public statements to the contrary, Russia like Israel, rejects a withdrawal of US forces from Syria.
After initially announcing in February a complete pullback, Mr. Trump agreed to keep several hundred US troops in the country.
Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi said that a US withdrawal would strengthen Iran and force Russia to allow Iran to take control of oil fields in the east of the country.
Writing in Haaretz, columnist Zvi Bar’el suggested that Russia and Iran differ over the endgame in Syria. “Russia has no intention of simply returning Syria to Assad’s control,” Mr. Bar’el said. He added that Russia sees Syria as a base to forge closer ties to the Gulf and Egypt.
Iran, by contrast, hopes to capitalize on its massive investment in Syria to maintain its influence in Lebanon, counter Saudi regional ambitions and grant it access to the Mediterranean.
Scores were killed in clashes between pro-Iranian militias and Russian forces in Aleppo and Deir az-Zor in April. Russian forces last month reportedly removed Shiite militias from areas close to the international airports of Aleppo and Damascus.
Ibrahim Al-Badawi, a Syrian columnist identified with Mr. Al-Assad’s regime, reported that Russian and Syrian security forces had arrested pro-Iranian Syrian activists.
Mr. Al-Badawi said further that a recent reshuffle of the upper echelons of the Syrian state security apparatus had been designed to weaken the position of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother and commander of his Republican Guard as well as the army's elite Fourth Armoured Division. Maher al-Assad is believed to be close to Iran.
Russia and Iran are “each…striving to strengthen its influence in the Syrian security apparatuses and in the militias fighting on the ground, while weakening the other side's influence and presence… The [once-]concealed disagreements among Syria's allies are now out in the open. It is no longer a secret that Russia, in response to a clear demand from the Gulf, aspires to weaken Iran's influence,” Mr. Al-Badawi wrote.
A possible litmus test of the potential of the talks between the national security advisors may be whether Russia accedes to an Israeli request not to give Syria full control of the S-300 anti-missile system, the equivalent of the US Patriot batteries, that Moscow has already sold and delivered.
Israeli officials have warned their Russian counterparts that once fully controlled by Syrian forces, the S-300 would be a legitimate target.
Israel and Russia agreed four years ago to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire.
Israel, however, last year rejected a Russian offer to ensure that Iranian forces would not move within 100 kilometres of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war and recently recognized as Israeli territory by the United States. Accepting the Russian offer would have amounted to tacit acceptance of an Iranian presence in Syria.
Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi noted in their report that Israeli forces had reduced the number of attacks on Iranian targets in Syria in a bid to improve chances of exploiting Russian-Iranian strains.
“There is a window of opportunity that allows Israel to try…with Russia and the United States…to formulate and achieve shared interests that it has with the two superpowers, most importantly increasing stability in Syria and instituting governmental reforms in Syria, along with reducing Iranian influence there,” Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.