Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow is meant to test Trump’s rhetoric on Iran

One would think that now, after they have been reassured of the U.S. President Donald Trump’s vocal support and his intention to extend economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic in the aftermath of Iran’s latest ballistic missile test, the Israelis may not need Russia’s support for tougher action against Iran and its affiliated Hezbollah terrorists. However, today the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Iran’s attempts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. Does this visit create a possibility to change, for at least a little bit, the attitude of the Russian side to the Syrian disaster or is it likely to become a mere formality and another gesture of respect to Mr. Putin’s ideas for the region? Clearly, for Moscow, this meeting could be another opportunity to boost its political clout in the Arab world as a power that supports regional security, rather than chaos – the image Russia deliberately wants to promote, and this is where the Israeli prime minister masterfully plays along with Moscow. On the other hand, Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to Russia happens at the perfect time, and could, presumably, be viewed as a test of how serious Mr. Trump’s support for Israel’s security is and how far the American president is ready to go beyond his sharp, and usually categorical, rhetoric.

As Reuters cites the Israeli prime minister, “Iran is attempting to base itself permanently in Syria – either through a military presence on the ground or a naval presence – and also through a gradual attempt to open a front against us on the Golan Heights. I will express to President Putin Israel’s vigorous opposition to this possibility.” Last year, the prime minister also suggested that “he did not know if we could put the Syrian omelet back in the egg,” which clearly meant that according to Netanyahu, the powers involved would need to deal with the consequences of the Syrian crisis, no matter how desperately they had wished for the current status quo to remain frozen. Neither is it possible to imagine going back to where it used to be, given the Kurdish issue and the Sunni-Shia divide, supported by the powers involved. With Israel working to prevent smuggling of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in the absence of the U.S. government’s clear position on the Iranian activities in the region (tweeting does not count), it is safe to assume that Tel-Aviv is now officially a party to the sectarian conflict in the six year old Syrian civil war. Therefore, Netanyahu certainly has good reason to ask for tighter regional security, given Israel’s proximity to Syria and Tehran’s highly negative sentiments toward not only Tel-Aviv but, more recently, to Washington as well.

Contrary to Netanyahu’s realistic approach, the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey acknowledged their commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as a multiethnic and nonsectarian state in Kazakhstan earlier this year, and their conviction “that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it can only be solved through a political process.” No matter how eloquent the statement sounds, it is more likely to remain on paper for the reasons mentioned above. The fact that Turks, Russians and Iranians ended up at the same negotiations table while having totally opposing goals in Syria only reinforces mistrust not only between the three powers but also between their proxies on the ground, and leads to the conclusion that they will not be able to pretend forever. The fact that the Syrian President Bashar Assad has occasionally visited Russia amid the Syrian civil war (some go as far as suspect he is hiding in Moscow), suggests that physically he feels safer in Moscow – Alawites have always been considered a sect in both Shia and Sunni communities of the Middle East. It is clear to everyone that as long as Assad is alive, he continues to be president of Syria, the access to whom has only Putin. Russia has traditionally had warm relations with Kurds too (over 60.000 Kurds live in Russia and the South Caucasus as of 2010), which periodically bothers both Iran and Turkey.

Although the above arguments could totally justify the already fifth’s visit of the Israeli prime minister to Russia since 2016, it comes at a time when Mr. Trump and certain members of his family and administration are being grilled at home for their assumed business and other ties to Russian officials and oligarchs. The-now-former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned a couple of weeks ago for having misled the president’s administration regarding his communication with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. This resignation has obviously become a black spot on Trump’s resume but it did insure his “integrity”, just in case there were more serious allegations to come. By most of the Republicans and high ranking national security figures the president is viewed as “not-hawkish-enough” in regard to Russia, since he continuously refuses to use tougher rhetoric on Mr. Putin, including on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as if he was afraid to disappoint the Russian president. In this light, the U.S. leadership should not take Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow lightly; this is a chance for Mr. Trump to show that he was serious about his militaristic approach to international terrorism and that Israel’s security can only be provided by the U.S. This is also a superb opportunity for Mr. Trump to, once and for all, dissociate himself and his family from presumably Russia’s agenda. There is no better opportunity for the American president to reassure the world of his pre-election and inauguration promises to eradicate Islamic fundamentalism “from the face of the earth”, than to lend a helping hand to Tel-Aviv. It should not be long now, until one finds out about how true Trump’s assurances are and where Mr. Trump stands on Iran’s nuclear deal and international terrorism, which he has been, so far, dealing with quite consistently at home.

About the Author
Jamila Mammadova is a former expert consultant to the Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan. She specializes in international relations and international law, with an interest in Russia and Middle East.
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