Israel, US offer Russia a ‘grand bargain’ on Syria including Iranian withdrawal
ISTANBUL - Israel and the United States are offering political and military concessions to Moscow if the Russians can pressure Iran to withdraw from Syria but there are doubts that Russia can deliver.
Reports indicated that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu discussed a possible deal during his July 11 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
“Our opinion is that Iran should leave Syria. This is not something new to you,” Netanyahu told Putin, reports said. In return for Russian action to push Iran out of Syria, Israel is ready to work with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the reports said.
Many Western countries have called for Assad to be removed from power because of atrocities committed during the 7-year-old civil war in Syria.
“We never had a problem with the Assad regime. For 40 years (after the 1973 Middle East war), not one bullet was fired on the Golan Heights,” which are claimed by Israel, a reporter for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper quoted Netanyahu as saying. “The heart of the matter is retaining our freedom of action against anyone who acts against us, and the removal of the Iranians from Syrian territory,” Netanyahu said a day after meeting with Putin.
A senior Israeli official told Reuters that Israel would not try to bring down the Assad government but expected Russia to act on the Iranian role in Syria. “They (Russia) have an active interest in seeing a stable Assad regime and we in getting the Iranians out. These can clash or it can align,” the official was quoted as saying.
Pro-government forces in Syria have been attacking rebel positions close to the Golan Heights. In a sign of the volatility of the situation along the border, Israel attacked Syrian Army positions on July 12 after a Syrian drone entered Israeli airspace.
Israel is not the only player sending signals to Moscow. US national security adviser John Bolton indicated during an interview with CBS News on July 1 that Washington no longer sees Assad’s removal as a priority. “I don’t think Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue,” Bolton said. “There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward.”
CNN reported that Trump was connecting a planned withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 US personnel from Syria with a removal of Iranian forces from the country. Quoting unnamed diplomatic sources, CNN reported that getting Iran to leave Syria was a “key part” of the president’s plan to pull US forces out of Syria.
US troops are deployed in northern and eastern Syria, where they support Kurdish-led forces in the fight against the Islamic State. Their withdrawal would strengthen Russia’s role in the country.
Putin met with Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a day after Netanyahu met with Putin. “I told the Russian officials: Now the Americans are telling you that the Iranians must leave Syria and tomorrow they will ask you what you are doing in Syria,” Velayati said on July 13. “They are trying to split our alliance.”
But Velayati left the door open for Iranian withdrawal from Syria. “Iran and Russia’s presence in Syria will continue to protect the country against terrorist groups and America’s aggression … We will immediately leave if Iraqi and Syrian governments want it, not because of Israel and America’s pressure,” he said.
There has been speculation that Syrian troops could replace Iranian forces and their proxy Hezbollah near the Golan Heights. Media reports in Israel and the United States suggested the bargain to convince Russia to lean on Iran could be even more comprehensive. The agreement could include a US commitment to ease sanctions on Moscow in response to the Russian annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the reports say.
The issue of a “grand bargain” on Syria could be raised during the meeting of US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland.
The New Yorker reported that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had repeatedly asked Washington to consider the idea of ending the Ukraine sanctions in return for Russian help to push Iran out of Syria.
Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, told the Los Angeles Times such an understanding would be “strategic madness” because it would give Russia a “free hand” in Europe “but we can’t deny the possibility that Trump is entertaining this as a real plan.”
While discussions about the “grand bargain” continue, observers said they doubt whether Russia would have enough instruments at its disposal to push Iran out of Syria.
“The big question is: Can Russia deliver?” said Alex Vatanka, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Iran was aware that its alliance with Moscow to support Assad was a “marriage of convenience” and that Russia could strike a deal at Tehran’s expense if it suited its own strategic objectives, he said.
Vatanka said it was unclear what Moscow could do to remove Iranian forces from Syria. Even with a deal in place, an Iranian withdrawal would only come over time, Vatanka said, adding: “It will not happen anytime soon.”