Prime Minister Netanyahu Visits Russia for Talks on Iran

Yerushalayim (Ilana Messika/Andrew Friedman/TPS) – As Prime Minister Netanyahu stepped into a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia said he believes the two leaders will move towards an agreement to allow Iran some power in Syria, as long as Islamic Republic forces stay away from the southern part of the country, near the border with Israel.

The meeting, the third between the leaders since the beginning of 2016, takes place in the shadow of ongoing contacts between the countries to avoid conflicts in Syria. Netanyahu will express strong opposition to allowing Iranian forces and proxies to remain in the southern part of the country, adjacent to the Syria-Israel border and the Mediterranean Sea “for any [future] arrangement that may arise.”

Zvi Magen, an Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Senior Research Fellow and a former Israeli ambassador to Russia, told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) that the fact Netanyahu made those official statements before the trip are clear indications that he will be seeking answers from the Russians.

“The central question for Israel is the presence of Iran in Syrian territory, within the greater challenge of the future political order. Israel, as a player with interests in the matter, is coming to talk to Putin personally knowing that Israel will not be invited to participate in peace talks about the future of Syria,” Magen said.

Israel did not take part in discussions that were held in the Kazakh capital of Astana last December between Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iran nor, were they participants in the last round of Geneva Peace Talks on Syria (Geneva IV) held on February 23.

“[Syrian President Basher al-] Assad is no longer relevant for the Russians. He has given them what he could, but he is no longer an actor, in the sense that he has no remaining influence,” said Magen. “Assad currently holds approximately 25 percent of Syria’s territory, mostly near the Mediterranean coast while ISIS is slowly being driven out of the rest of the country and a great portion of Iraq. The big question now is what will happen to all the territory that Assad no longer controls. Will new states be established? Will old powers be reinstated?”

As a result of the vacuum left by Assad’s departure from the stage, all main regional players now have developed interests in a post-Assad Syria. Iran retains visions of becoming a regional superpower stretching the Afghan border to the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey opposes the Iranians and will demand to control its territory while also maintaining interests in negotiations to prevent a potential state of Kurdistan from emerging. Sunni leaders Saudi Arabia and Egypt also oppose Iranian dominion as part of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict.

Russia recently signaled a break with Iran at the Astana Syrian peace talks of January 30, when it suggested Firas Tlass as a possible candidate to succeed Bashar Assad. The choice of Tlass as an interim Syrian leader is an indication that Putin views Ankara is a preferable ally to Moscow.

“I actually believe Netanyahu and Putin will agree to a compromise,” Magen told TPS. “Russia will provide guarantees that Iran will not enter the southern part of Syria in exchange for Israel’s agreement to allow Iran control the north of the country. One critical difficulty will obviously be the Golan Heights, and Moscow’s policy regarding the future of the territory’s status [i.e. regarding Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Heights] will surely be part of today’s talks.”

Magen also claimed that although Netanyahu and his delegation are the only ones meeting with Putin today, the Israelis will be representing the interests of other anti-Iran countries in the  Middle East, with US support.

“Netanyahu arrives following his meeting with US President Donald Trump on February 15. Those talks apparently concluded with the US support regarding opposition to a new Iranian ’empire’ and with Israel’s agreement to forge an alliance with Sunni states against Iran, specifically the Saudis and the Egyptians, should the US support such an initiative,” Magen stated.

For more than a year, the Kremlin has shown interest in playing a central role if and when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process resumes.  Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy for the Middle East, visited the region last September, while in March 2016 Putin told the Arab League that Russia would fight for an independent Palestinian state. Russia also told Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi that Moscow would like to host the next round of talks.

“Putin has been attempting to promote his initiative to act as mediator of peace process negotiations… [in order to build] influence in the Middle East and [as part of a] regional power play against the United States,” stated Magen. “He was unsuccessful until now because, among other things, former US President Barack Obama was opposed to the idea. The Russians are now trying again to introduce the Palestinian subject and to link it to the whole Middle Eastern order. That is, Putin will probably attempt to make tempting offers to Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue in exchange for guarantees on the Iranian issue.”

“Although Trump told Netanyahu that he did not have a preference for an Israel-Palestinian peace outcome, in my view the ultimate decision should be his [Trump’s]. In that sense, Putin will not only be talking with Netanyahu on this matter but also, and importantly, with Trump.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated today, Thursday: “Over the past year there has been significant progress made [in the fight against] radical Islamic terrorism led by ISIS and al-Qaeda, Russia has made a very important contribution to these efforts. It is obvious that we do not want to see this type of terrorism replaced by Shiite radical terrorism run by Iran.”

Netanyahu also made reference to the Yom Tov (holiday) Purim, which occurs the coming Sunday and Monday and celebrates the averted genocide of the Jewish people 2500 years ago in ancient Persia. “Today, the descendants of that nation -Iran – wants to wipe out the state of the Jews. They say it, in the clearest of ways, they write it on their ballistic missiles.

“Let me say in the clearest of ways: Israel is a Country. We have an army, and we know how to defend ourselves. But the threat of Shiite Islamic terrorism does not only threaten us. It threatens the entire region and world peace. I know that [Israel and Russia] are united in the desire to prevent radical Islam from chalking up any victories of any kind,” Netanyahu said.

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