The survival of the Assad regime lies entirely in the hands of its two main supporters: Russia and Iran. Therefore Netanyahu was in Moscow to persuade Putin to force Iran to give up its military bases in Syria, writes Marcel Kurpershoek. They are a threat for Israel. Trump, who canceled the nuclear arrangement with Iran, also needs Putin. For all three of them the stakes could not be higher.

by Marcel Kurpershoek

In Syria the future of President Assad has shifted to the background. The conflict’s geopolitical dimensions dominate the scene. The survival of the Assad regime lies entirely in the hands of its two main supporters: Russia and Iran. Whatever leverage Assad still has, is confined to wriggling between Moscow and Tehran. And there lies the rub: who really calls the shots in Damascus?

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Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin in Moscow. Picture Kremlin

It has always been understood that Russian and Iranian interests in Syria are not necessarily identical. Their first priority was to shore up the Assad regime and protect its state structures from imminent collapse. That goal has been largely achieved. The United States and its western allies scaled down their initial support for a Syrian opposition that was reduced to impotency by internal bickering and the armed resistance’s descent into Islamic extremism.

The opposition’s regional sponsors were stymied by equally unbridgeable differences: for instance between Turkey and Qatar, with their predilection for the Muslim Brotherhood, and others who regarded the Brotherhood as  even more insidious than Assad, such as the Emirates and Saudi Arabia − not to speak of Sisi’s Egypt that is at war with the Brotherhood. No wonder that Assad, bolstered by steadfast and effective Russian and Iranian support, showed himself contemptuous of United Nations’ efforts to mediate a ‘transition’ of political power.

His regime was moreover given a tailwind by the rise of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) – the ugliest face of Sunni religiously motivated extremism seen so far. In Iraq the Obama administration joined Iran in countering this ferocious threat. This coincided with negotiations on the nuclear agreement with Iran − and expectations of cooperation with Iran in other fields, especially in bringing stability to Iraq and Syria, and thereby the wider Middle East. These dreams perfectly served Obama’s agenda of distancing the United States from its thankless Middle East imbroglio. And so did the goal of limiting military involvement to destroying ISIS which could count on virtually unanimous domestic support in the United States and Europe.

Geopolitics after defeat ISIS

Now these comfortable truths have outlived their utility. The moment of strategic geopolitical reckoning has come. ISIS has been defeated: it can no longer serve as a foil that legitimizes international intervention. Even in its heyday, the anti-terrorism rhetoric could not hide the fact that the Syrian crisis quickly turned into an arena for interstate conflict. By now the remaining pockets of ISIS in eastern Syria have become a lame excuse for the dispatch of the aircraft-carrier Harry Truman to the Mediterranean.

In the world’s chancelleries it is understood that the real issue is the fate of the nuclear agreement with Iran and its corollary: the threat posed by the build-up of military infrastructure by Iran in Syria, especially to Israel’s security.

Over the past months Iranian priorities have moved beyond the survival of Assad to focus on turning Syria into a forward strategic bridgehead against Israel. The Israeli strike against the Iranian base known as T-4, and the destruction of 200 missiles, resulting in the death of a considerable number of Iranian military personnel, is perhaps the most dramatic development in the Syrian war since the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in 2013, followed by diplomatic arrangements that allowed Obama to walk back from his self-imposed red line on the use of chemical weapons, and the Russian intervention in September 2015.

Not coincidentally, the Israeli strike comes at a time that the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been given full war powers by the Knesset and has upped the ante on the nuclear file as president Trump got ready to deliver his campaign denouncement of the accord with Iran. Dealmaker Trump would love to make a win-win 'deal' with Putin. Why else would he have called him with congratulations for his reelection? Netanyahu is going to find out if Putin is open for business: the bargaining will be over Iran. The stakes could not be higher for the three of them. 

All roads lead to Moscow

In these tense moments, as the Iranian and Israeli cauldron in Syria is about to boil over, all roads lead to Moscow. Re-elected Putin is in good shape to cash in on his calculated interventions in Syria that made him a pivotal player and the go-to leader for Middle East issues. This is Netanyahu’s second time in half a year to make the pilgrimage to the Kremlin. And he has chosen to flatter his host by attending Russia’s victory parade over Nazism at a time that all western leaders stay away.

It is unlikely that Netanyahu will return empty-handed. But neither will his hands be full. The bait that Israel holds out to Putin is acquiescence in Russia’s dominant role in Syria or, depending on Putin’s conciliatoriness on Israel’s demands, active support for it − even at the price of letting Assad stay afloat in Damascus. But if Russia does not prevail upon Iran to dismantle its Syrian military infrastructure targeted at Israel, Israel will have no other choice than finish the job itself. Most likely, with the backing of a Trump administration where anti-Iran hardliners Pompeo and Bolton are influential.

If Israel makes the difficult decision to do so, it will make sure to leave Russian assets untouched. But in that case Russian inability to prevent the Israeli operation will tarnish Putin’s carefully nurtured prestige or, even worse, will force him to escalate against Israel in favor of Iran. This is very unlikely: Russian spokesmen have already expressed sympathetic understanding of Israeli security fears concerning Iran’s presence in Syria.

Both Putin and Netanyahu have vital interests at stake in preventing a catastrophic scenario. According to Yuri Barmin, Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, Russia is ‘willing to negotiate on the issue of Iran and Iran’s presence’ in areas near Israel’s border.

Israel could support Russia on global scene

This will not be music to Iranian ears. But for Israel such a concession will not be enough. An agreement should include all Iranian assets that can be used against Israel no matter where in Syria. But it might be a first step and present an opening. After all, at this stage of the war the perception of Iranian menace in Syria is clearly disruptive of the Russian movements on the Middle Eastern stage. And Israeli gratitude can translate into Russian gains on other global issues.

Iran is the party that most likely will lose out and be forced to back down. But then the grandiloquence of the Revolutionary Guard about an Iranian greater Middle East, based on Shia militancy, was always likely to crash into the wall of reality.