Thursday November 27, 2014
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27.11.2014
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Zalman Shoval

Are Israel and Russia on the same page?

Though the U.S. and Russia have agreed to hold a summit in Geneva to try to diplomatically resolve the conflict in Syria and establish an interim Syrian government, it is highly doubtful that Russia and the U.S. are of one mind as to what the diplomatic resolution should be. Israel, as we all know, does not have a clear preference as to which side winds up on top: It is not indifferent to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's atrocities, but it is also aware that the rebels, or at least some of them, may pose no less of a threat.

The Russians have a direct interest in the events in Syria, and the lightning meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month is proof of that. We don't know exactly what was said behind closed doors in Sochi, but we cannot assume that Putin initiated the meeting (and he did in fact initiate it) just to inform Netanyahu that Russia would not cancel its missile deal with the Syrians due to supposed contractual obligations or commercial reputation considerations. A regime change in Syria would jeopardize the strategic, diplomatic and economic interests of Putin's Russia, much like the interests of the Soviet Union before it.

The Syrian port of Tartus is the home base of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. Since Moscow wants to preserve its status (at least in its own view) as a regional superpower in the Middle East, it must carefully consider its conduct on the day after Assad's fall -- and Israel apparently plays into Russia's considerations.

It is possible that the Russians will try to forge ties with whomever rises to power in Damascus after Assad, but they are also considering the possibility that Syria will splinter and a small Alawite state will be established in the northeaster part of the country -- where the port of Tartus is situated. The Americans, unlike the Russians, are still hoping for a unified Syria with a democratic leadership that would cooperate with the West, though they are less confident in the likelihood of this actually happening.

In the past, Soviet policy in the Middle East rested mainly on support for the Arabs, including Arab terror organizations, and hostility toward Israel -- both because Stalin viewed Zionism as the most dangerous enemy of communism and because of Israel's relationship with the U.S. in the context of the Cold War. In this regard, things have changed, and thankfully so.

Currently, Russia isn't entirely in love with Assad either. Russia's support for Assad is a default policy. But much like Israel, Russia is worried that if Assad falls, a fundamentalist-Islamist hub will arise in his place. In this regard, Jerusalem and Moscow share a common future interest (even if it is for different reasons). In the meantime, Israel expects Russia to convince Assad that it has no intention of attacking him as long as he prevents the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Israel also wants Russia to make it clear to Assad that if he should violate this expectation, or provoke Israel other ways, there will be a response.

There is currently more than one game being played at the Syrian card table. One player is playing poker while another player is playing bridge. The players and partners are also inconsistent. At this point, it is not yet clear which player is holding the winning card, or even if such a card exists. In any case, Israel has to play its cards close to the chest and refrain from unnecessary chatter. And of course Israel must not forget that specific or temporary interests, as important as they may be, are no substitute for the long-term relationship with the U.S.

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