It has become a routine matter for Israeli leaders to meet with Vladimir Putin, so much so, that the media interest in these meetings is almost non-existent. This may prove to be a big mistake. The current meeting in Sochi, may take place in a location of ease and summer pleasure, but PM Netanyahu is not at all at ease these days. In fact, he is sweating quite a lot, something that happens to him when he is under pressure, not necessarily because of the heat. He is under immense pressure, relating to the new reality shaping up on the ground in Syria, and in particular, the growing role of Iran and its stooges in territories very close to the Israeli border.
Bashar Assad himself, in an all but in name victory speech, declared a few days ago, that the role of Iran in his presumed victory in the Syrian civil war was crucial. The truth is, that Assad is not, as yet, even in total control of his own capital and altogether is in control of less than half the territory of Syria. He has always been good though in waging an effective propaganda war, and so it is now. Say repeatedly that you are the winner, and then you create the agenda for the discussion. When it comes to Iran, then it is not a propaganda campaign, rather a harsh reality. Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hizballah troops from Lebanon, Iraqi Shi’ite militias, Yemenite and Afghan shi’ite’’volunteers,’’ constitute the back bone of the troops that hold together the Assad-controlled regions, as the Syrian army itself is largely depleted in numbers, and unable to do the job by itself.
There are no free meals in this arrangement, and the Iranians want their due reward from Assad, and for them, it means permanent military presence in Syria, one which would be used in order to increase their threat on Israel. There are multiple reports, though mostly unverified and probably exaggerated about secret sites where long-range ground to ground missiles are produced and stored, but the fact remains, that the Iranians make no bones about their long-term intentions ― another front, on top on the one in Lebanon against Israel.
While the Iranians display bravado, and Assad follows suit, the reality in Syria is such that the two powers, U.S. and Russia are involved in what is happening, and have a say there. Whereas the American policy in Syria seems to be unclear and not consistent, the Russian one is very obvious, and it is to be in deeds, not just in words, the final arbiter of the political/strategic future of Syria.
The Trump administration makes the right voices about Syria, including specifically expressing opposition to Iran becoming permanently based there, and in South East Syria, the Americans flex their muscles against the Iranian attempt to create a ground corridor from Iran via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. There is however, ambiguity about the long-standing Iranian plans there, the existing Iranian presence in other parts of Syria, and in particular in South West Syria, the area bordering with Jordan and Israel, the area which Israel rightly designated as its immediate and vital sphere of interests. According to the cease fire in South Syria [which is more formal than actual], brokered by Russia and the U.S., there are not supposed to be Iranian-Hizballah troops there. According to Israel, they are still there, showing no indication of withdrawing. Here is where Netanyahu is so worried, and why the current talks with Putin are so important.
In a move which indicates Israel’s concerns, Netanyahu is accompanied this time by the Head of Mossad, who, according to the reports, will share “delicate’’ intelligence with the Russians. Netanyahu’s people leaked to the press, that the info brought by them is also known to the US, a fact, which may be likely to arouse Putin’s sensitive instincts, and they also repeat the usual Israeli mantras about Iran, being an existential threat to Israel, and not to Israel alone, but to the rest of the world. Netanyahu’s watchers may have a sense of deja vu here, as this rhetoric sounds so similar to the one used by him in the years and months prior to the Iran nuclear deal. The wolf cry syndrome may be in place here, and that may not serve Netanyahu well with a tough guy like Putin. Netanyahu indicates Israel’s readiness to go it alone against Iranian actual take over of South Syria, but the question is who believes it, and the answer may be not the one that Netanyahu wants to hear. There is no American readiness to support Israel in such a case, and Putin surely would not like to see any one risking his vested interests in Syria, after all his investment there. He will be nice to Netanyahu, he will promise to take note of Israel’s worries, and on top of all that, he will try to gain time. He needs more time to consolidate his gains in Syria, and so will say to the Israeli leader whatever has to be said, which will serve his agenda.
Netanyahu may like to go to Russia, but he can’t make it a near monthly habit, and when back this time, he will have to engage the Israeli security/intelligence apparatus in a very thorough process of evaluation leading to decisions. If he really expects others, especially Putin, that he means business this time, he will have to go beyond words and into actions, as clearly Israel could not and should not allow Iran to turn South Syria into another South Lebanon.