Why 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Officially, Netanyahu (and Trump) want all Iranian troops withdrawn from Syria.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 the media, that large formations of Iranian troops can evade detection by simply donning Syrian uniforms.

“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 deal.

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.