Netanyahu presses Iranian withdrawal from Syria in meeting with Putin

The meeting sends key messages to Washington and Tehran about shifting geopolitical ties and the future of war-torn Syria. 
Thursday 12/07/2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP)

TUNIS - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Wednesday for the ninth time since Russia’s 2015 intervention in the Syrian conflict, sending unambiguous signals to allies and enemies alike.

However, despite warming ties between Moscow and Tel Aviv, Israel’s hopes that Russia will help speed an Iranian withdrawal from Syria are far from assured. 

The timing of the summit, as the world’s attention is focused on Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, is intended to highlight Moscow’s strengthened ties with Israel and re-position it at the centre of global affairs,  something it has longed for since being ejected from the G8, (now G7) grouping in 2014. 

In addition, the high-profile meeting sends key messages to policymakers in both Washington and Tehran about shifting geopolitical ties and the future of war-torn Syria. 

For the US, the visit is a stark reminder that Washington does not enjoy a monopoly on Israeli friendship. For Tehran, which also has an envoy in Moscow, the visit sends out a similar reminder that their Syrian alliance with Russia is not unconditional.  

For Netanyahu, as with the US  -- which has a summit with the Russian leader scheduled for July 15 in Helsinki -- limiting or eradicating Iran’s presence in Syria is vital, not least as the Syrian army and its suspected Shia militias inch closer to the Golan and Israel’s border.  

According to media reports ahead of Monday’s meeting in Helsinki, Putin and Trump could reach a deal that would allow for the deployment of Syrian government forces to the Golan in return for the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxy Hezbollah militia from the area.

However, sensitive to the charges of “betrayal” within the Iranian press, Moscow has been careful to signal that its support of any US/Israeli proposal limiting Iranian freedom of movement in Syria is far from assured. 

Further to backing away from their previous insistence that all foreign actors withdraw from Syria, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia described Iran’s presence in Syria on June 28 as “legitimate and undeniable,” saying: “Nobody can deny the issue, whether they like it or not.”

On July 4, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed both US and Israeli demands for Iran’s full withdrawal from Syria as “absolutely unrealistic,” a further indication that Iran is unlikely to leave Syria any time soon. 

It is also unclear whether Moscow would be able to guarantee an Iranian withdrawal from Syria, even if it wanted to. While precise troop numbers are impossible to gauge, Russia’s ability to project power on the ground is far eclipsed by that of Iran and its allied militias, who have proven vital to supporting many of the regime’s advances and, by extension, aided Russia’s war aims. Iran-aligned forces are also said to be playing a key role in holding and policing territory taken from Syria’s rebel forces by the regime.

Reminding his Russian hosts of the dangers emanating from the Syrian conflict, Netanyahu pointed to the Israeli military’s firing of a Patriot missile at a stray drone said to have been launched from Syria on Wednesday.

“We will continue to act decisively against any spillover and any infiltration of Israeli territory or airspace,” Netanyahu said.

“Their use of military force in Syria would inevitably lead to an escalation of tensions across the entire Middle East region. In that context, we rely on peaceful diplomatic means to resolve any differences and expect both sides to show restraint," he said.