Israel Got the Biggest Win from Helsinki
By Zev Chafets
July 19, 2018
Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is enjoying a
triumphal moment. He didn’t attend the Helsinki summit between Vladimir Putin
and Donald Trump, of course, but he certainly felt he was represented there.
“I think we really came to a lot of good conclusions, a
really good conclusion for Israel,” Trump told interviewer Sean Hannity
immediately after the meeting. Putin, Trump said, “is a believer in Israel.
He's a fan of Bibi. He is really helping him a lot and will help him a lot,
which is good for all of us.”
At the summit’s concluding press conference, Putin also
had a gift for Bibi: “The situation on the Golan Heights must be restored to
what it was after the 1974 [separation of forces] agreement,” he said. This is
precisely what Netanyahu asked him for when they met in Moscow, a few days
before the summit. It means a complete cease-fire along the Israel-Syrian border
and no foreign troops anywhere in the vicinity.
Officially, Netanyahu (and Trump) want all Iranian troops
withdrawn from Syria. But neither is willing to expel the Iranians by force,
which would require ground troops, and so a compromise is needed. Israel can
live with a relatively small contingent of Iranian “advisers,” stationed
east of Damascus, far from its border. That would suit both the U.S. and Russia.
The Iranians, of course, don’t want to go anywhere, and
they don’t intend to accept limitations on the deployment of their forces. But
if there is an American-Russian agreement on no-go zones for Iranian troops
there is very little they can do. Senior Israeli security officials say such a
ban can be effectively enforced, and scoff at the notion, recently mentioned in
that large formations of Iranian troops can evade detection by simply donning
“The Iranian army speaks Farsi, not Arabic,” one senior
Israeli government official told me. “We have all sorts of ways to tell them
from the Syrian army or Hezbollah. We really don’t require a dress code.”
Russia does not necessarily want all Iranian troops to
leave Syria. It is building permanent installations and ports in Syria, and it
needs a stable regime in Damascus. Putin has no interest in serving as Assad’s
internal security policeman, and it would serve his purpose to have Iran
providing muscle in the immediate post-civil war period. If and when Bashar al-Assad
gets full control of the country, he may well get rid of the Iranians himself.
Arab dictators are notoriously unwilling to cede freedom of action to non-Arab
(and in this case, non-Alawite) armed personnel on their turf.
Another issue that seems settled, at least for now, is
Israel’s right to interdict Iranian weapons shipments sent via Syria to
Hezbollah in Lebanon. These strikes have been going on for a long time, with
American encouragement and Russian acquiescence. There is no sign the status quo
is changing. Less than 24 hours before the Helsinki summit, Israeli planes
attacked an airbase near the Syrian city of Aleppo. A number of Iranian
personnel were reportedly killed. Netanyahu would not never have green-lit such
a mission without being confident of Putin’s tacit agreement.
Of course there is a land route from Iran to Lebanon, via
Iraq and Syria. At present the U.S. has roughly 2,000 troops stationed in the
area, making it impractical for Iran to use it for large-scale arms smuggling.
Back in April, Trump let it be known that he intended to remove these troops
soon. Netanyahu considered this a serious mistake and told him so.
Trump got the message. Before the NATO conference in
Brussels, his National Security Adviser John Bolton explained to
ABC’s Jonathan Karl that there has been a change of plan. “I think the
president has made it clear that we are [in Syria] until the ISIS territorial
caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the
Middle East,” he said.
In Brussels, Trump made it clear to his NATO allies that he
intends to hit Iran by waging brutal economic warfare. “Their economy is
collapsing” he said. “At a certain point, they’re going to call me and
they’re going to say ‘Let’s make a deal,’ and we’ll make a deal.’
But they’re feeling a lot of pain right now.”
It was classic Trump overstatement, but it's clear he
intends to raise the level of pain until Iran asks for negotiations, or the
regime collapses. This is ultimate goal of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear
It was Netanyahu who convinced Trump to leave that pact,
(for which he took credit at a recent Likud Party gathering) and it is Netanyahu
who is encouraging his economic hard line. Decapitate the regime in Tehran,
goes the reasoning, and the Iranian troops will leave Syria automatically.
This is an untested theory, however: Putin may not want an
American success in Iran. Even if he is willing, he will exact a high diplomatic
price. Nor is it clear that any amount of economic suffering will be sufficient
to bring down the regime.
With Trump and Putin in rare agreement, Netanyahu will welcome the opportunity to diminish Iran's influence in Syria. It's no substitute for the regime change he seeks, but it will do for now.