In trilateral Jerusalem summit, laudable effort to address Syria
The top US, Russian and Israeli security officials met in Jerusalem. The unprecedented summit brought together US national security adviser John Bolton and counterparts Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, and Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of Israel’s National Security Council.
The unusual meeting of the three officials reflects first and foremost Israel’s favoured standing in both Washington and Moscow, particularly when it comes to policy towards Syria and Iran — two hot button conflicts at the top of the international security agenda.
The tripartite agenda for the meetings was coordinated by Israel. This initiative places Israel as something of a broker between Washington and Moscow, whose bilateral relationship is frosty when it isn’t downright contentious.
Washington views Israel as a vital partner in its increasingly volatile global campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran, notably in Syria. Indeed, given the success of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s non-stop campaign against the ayatollahs, it is not clear at all that the real energy for Washington’s growing effort against Iran emanates from Washington and not Israel.
Moscow’s relationship with Netanyahu is close, but it is an intimacy based upon anodyne realpolitik, especially regarding Syria. Moscow’s policy coordination with Jerusalem enables Israel to contest Iran’s and Hezbollah’s development of an offensive military infrastructure in Syria. This partnership, assiduously maintained by close coordination between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been pursued with ongoing success since the Russian decision to intervene militarily in September 2015.
Notwithstanding their many differences – from North Korea to election interference — on Syria at least there is a measure of agreement that could form the foundation for a more unified international effort to chart the next stages of the brutal conflict.
“I believe that there is a wider basis for cooperation [in Syria] between the three of us than many believe,” observed Netanyahu as the security summit commenced on June 25. The Israeli prime minister added that the meeting, the first of national security advisers from all three countries, provides “a real opportunity… particularly in Syria to establish a basis for further cooperation.
Notwithstanding their differences, there is a shared understanding in all three capitals that Syrian President Bashar Assad and more importantly the system he represents have prevailed over its enemies, domestic and foreign. This recognition, embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm in Moscow, Jerusalem and Washington, forms the agreed foundation for their dialogue.
Israel has gone further than most of Syria’s neighbours in restoring the pre-war status quo ante – reinstituting the UN-monitored frontier in the Golan Heights and holding Damascus, as Syria’s recognised sovereign, responsible for continuing security threats posed by Syria’s wartime allies emanating from within the country.
Washington, which famously called upon Assad to “go” in August 2011, has the most trouble reconciling itself to Assad’s victory. The Trump White House has been forced by its battlefield and political shortcomings to scale down its ambitions. The United States reluctantly recognises that there is no military option to oust the regime and that Assad is part of the postwar equation. Even as officials were meeting in Jerusalem, Washington convened in Paris a meeting of the US-sponsored “small group” to plan the next steps in the campaign against the Syrian government.
Moscow, like Jerusalem and in continuing contrast to Washington, is clear-minded about its interests. Viewed from the Kremlin, Syria, with Moscow’s vital assistance, is on its way to restoring sovereign control over its entire territory, and the responsibility of the international community is to facilitate rather than obstruct that continuing effort.
In addition to Assad’s triumph, all three agree, if not for the same reasons, that the deployments and influence of Iran and its associated militias in Syria must be constrained. Israel is a vocal proponent of this view. It sees Iranian influence across the frontier as an unacceptable threat to Israeli security. Moscow, in contrast, while sympathetic to Israel’s concerns, recognises Iran’s important contribution to the victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) and the international legality of its presence. But out of elementary self-interest, Russia too prefers to see Iranian influence in the country curtailed. Reducing Iran’s provocative footprint is also a prerequisite to restoring effective Syrian sovereignty.
“We understand the concerns that Israel has and want those threats to be eliminated,” noted Patrushev, while adding that “one should also take the national interests of other regional nations into consideration.
“If we do not… acknowledge and reckon with those interests, I doubt we can achieve any tangible result” in terms of regional security, the Russian Security Council secretary warned.
The series of bilateral and trilateral meetings in Jerusalem offered an opportunity for the security chiefs to clarify and reaffirm these policies rather than to establish a basis for changing them. No agreed-upon protocol was issued. Duelling tweets and press conferences, combined with an evocative visit by Bolton to the Jordan Valley, where he was treated to an Israeli Defence Forces security briefing promoting Israel’s permanent occupation, offered a less promising picture of the meetings hosted by Netanyahu.
Trump’s increasingly personal battle with the ayatollah and the opening round of the so-called “Deal of the Century” in Bahrain all but overshadowed the closely planned agenda in Jerusalem. This is unfortunate. The region can benefit from the diplomacy of the old-fashioned kind – quiet, operating best in the shadows, reflecting an interest in progress based upon consensual win-win outcomes that reduce rather than exacerbate the chances of a conflict. Syria is an unlikely forum for the successful practice of diplomacy’s fine arts, but Washington, Jerusalem, and Moscow should be cheered on in their efforts to do so.