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Situation Assessment 02 July, 2019

Balancing Interests at the Trilateral Summit in Jerusalem

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


On 24 and 25 June 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted US National Security Advisor John Bolton, secretary of the Russian national security council, Nikolai Patrushev and Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat for a trilateral summit in Jerusalem. The meetings dealt with strategic issues affecting the region, especially the situation in Syria and the Iranian presence there. That the meetings were convened in Israel demonstrates the depth of the relationship that Netanyahu has established in recent years with the United States and Russia. It also indicates the importance that Israel occupies in the strategy of the two major powers in the region, and their clear concern for its security and interests, in a live translation of the Trump-Putin understanding at the Helsinki Summit in July 2018 mandating that they must “give priority to ensuring Israel's security.” This is a proud achievement for Netanyahu, because the meeting of the two superpowers in Israel to seek a settlement of a complex issue such as Syria is proof of its international standing. More important is the international recognition of Israel’s regional role. This paper seeks to understand the goals and outcomes of the summit; does it point to the beginning of tripartite Russian-US-Israeli coordination in the region, especially with regard to the Syrian crisis, and what does this mean for Iran?

General Understandings

Given the clandestine nature of the Jerusalem meetings, the details of the talks between the three parties were not disclosed, but Israeli and Western media leaks claimed that the main discussion at the meeting centered on the willingness of Washington and Tel Aviv to help rehabilitate the Syrian regime regionally and internationally. This would be in exchange for Russia’s help to get the Iranian forces and militias out of Syria, a proposal that was offered by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Sochi and meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-May 201. This formula was also proposed during Netanyahu's recent visit to Moscow, in early April 2019, which marked the end to a tense six months between Russia and Israel, after Israel downed a Russian aircraft in September 2018, during a clash over the Syrian coast. In that visit, Netanyahu proposed forming a joint team to work to withdraw all foreign forces from Syria, in addition to the resumption of military coordination between the parties.

Although the Jerusalem meetings did not achieve a breakthrough on the fate of the Iranian presence in Syria, the three parties agreed that Syria should not be a base for threats of its neighbors (Israel), and that the stability of Syria depends on the eventual exit of foreign troops. They decided to continue the meetings between them in order to reach an understanding on the future of Syria.[1] It was also agreed that Russia would strengthen control over the Syrian border areas to reduce the volume of weapons Iran transports to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria and that Israel would continue to enjoy freedom of action in the Syrian airspace to "protect its interests" as per existing understandings with Russia, according to the Israeli media. It was also agreed that these recommendations would be submitted to Presidents Putin and Trump during their meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit held in Osaka, Japan not long after on 28-29 June 2019.

Russian interests

It seems that holding the trilateral security meeting in Jerusalem was decided during Netanyahu's recent visit to Russia, which Netanyahu said he had made in order to thank Putin for his effort in finding and returning to Israel the body of the Israeli soldier killed in Syria.[2] It seems that Putin's goal of agreeing to hold this meeting in Israel is to obtain Netanyahu's support and his influence on Trump in order to support the Russian effort to reach a solution to the Syrian issue, in order to guarantee the Syrian regime's international rehabilitation. These efforts have been curbed by the Trump administration after Russia managed to persuade some countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to resume their relations with the Syrian regime and hosted ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir aboard a Russian plane to undertake his first visit to Damascus in December 2018. Russia believes that Israeli cooperation, and subsequent US cooperation, is necessary in the next stage to translate its field gains into a political victory and fortify their position by rehabilitating the regime and attracting the necessary investment to start reconstruction. There is no doubt that it hopes to play a political, not just a security, role in mediation between the Assad regime and Israel.

Russia also proposed ideas to persuade Washington to withdraw from the areas of eastern Euphrates, through a formula that includes the withdrawal of all foreign troops, including Iranian, from Syria. This proposal was announced by Putin during the visit of the President of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad to Moscow in May 2018.[3] In April 2018 and then in December 2018 Trump expressed his desire to withdraw US troops from Syria, but his administration declined in both cases due to Israel's pressure and the Pentagon’s opposition. Moscow was displeased, having been hoping for Washington's withdrawal after the defeat of ISIL and the return of regime control over this vast region, rich in natural resources.

During the trilateral meeting, Russia offered to reach an agreement under which Washington would withdraw its forces from eastern Syria in coordination with Moscow. The forces of the Syrian regime backed by the Russian forces would control the security in these areas and continue to face the remnants of ISIL. In exchange, Iranian military presence would be restricted in Syria, and kept away from the Israeli border at a distance of 100 km, in the first phase, in preparation for ending it completely once a permanent solution was found. Since its military intervention in Syria in late September 2015, Russia has reached understandings with Israel, respecting the Israeli “red lines” and has repeatedly stressing that it understands and takes Israel's security interests in Syria into account. At the same time, Russia considers the Iranian military presence legitimate, and a response to the Syrian regime's request and that Iran was an important partner in the war in Syria. However, while it has managed to resolve the bulk of the military conflict in favor of the regime, the need for the role of Iran and its militias in Syria has diminished. Recently, serious contradictions between the Iranian and Russian interests have begun to appear in Syria, which may explain Tehran's refusal to participate in the current offensive against Idlib. Russia has also tried to strengthen its influence on the Syrian regime at Iran’s expense, especially the Syrian army and the security services, in preparation for the next phase, which calls for a settlement in Syria for reconstruction.

The Israeli Position

Israel attaches great importance to the Iranian military presence in Syria and claims that it poses the greatest threat today. Its interest in confronting it, at least in terms of rhetoric, is focused on stopping the Iranian nuclear project. Israel accuses Iran of not only seeking to preserve the Syrian regime, which Israel understands and tolerates, but also seeks to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, which could, if it so wishes, open a military front against Israel from Syria, forming a pressure force on Israel were Iran to be attacked. Israel believes that this contributes to the achievement of regional territorial contiguity from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria; enabling Iran to transport quality weapons and move military forces to Syria and Lebanon at will.

Israel has been able to coordinate and cooperate with both Russia and the United States to limit Iran's attempts to establish a permanent military presence of importance in Syria, through hundreds of raids against the Iranian military presence in Syria over the past years. Yet Israel no longer aspires to address the issue of Iran's military presence in Syria alone, but rather aspires to play a role in determining the future of Syria. Although Israel sought to prolong the Syrian war for as long as possible and to exploit it to extract US recognition of the annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan during the Trump era, it has recently warmed to Russian efforts to find a settlement in Syria that ensures that Assad remains in power under Russian influence, provided that the Iranian military presence is reduced and curtailed, and eventually removed, after reaching a final settlement of the conflict in Syria. In exchange for its recognition of the Assad regime and its international rehabilitation, Israel is likely to seek to establish secret military channels of communication to coordinate with it on issues of security and borders.[4]

The US Position

After eliminating ISIL for the most part, US interests in Syria are currently limited to marginalizing Iranian influence and stabilizing the eastern Euphrates by supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces and preventing clashes with Turkey. While Trump wants to withdraw quickly from the region, his administration wants to do so on the understanding that Iran's military presence will be reduced and ultimately ended in Syria. Washington therefore agreed to hold the trilateral summit in Jerusalem as an opportunity to discuss the details of Pompeo's offer at his last meeting with Putin in Sochi in May 2019, which included a willingness to trade off recognition of Assad remaining in power in return for Iran's removal from Syria.

Conclusion

The Jerusalem meeting did not yield definitive agreements, but it opened the door for greater coordination between the three parties on the fate of Syria and the Iranian presence there. With the parties agreeing to meet again, this trilateral route is likely to turn into a new course of conflict management in Syria pending a final solution. Until then, Russia is expected to continue to control Iran's military role in Syria and to continue to allow Israel to operate freely in the hope that it will win US and Israeli approval for the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime and the imposition of a political solution that suits its own vision.

There are two international blocs dealing with the current Syrian issue, one of them being Russian - Iranian - Turkish, and the second Russian - Israeli - US. While Russia is in both blocs, the Arabs and the Syrians are absent from both.

[1] "The security summit: Israel is satisfied with the results and Putin is the biggest winner," Arab 48, 26/6/2019, accessed 2/7/2019, at: https://bit.ly/305B1yB

[2] Ron Ben-Yishai, "Beyond the Deal proposed by Putin to Netanyahu and Trump", Ynet [Hebrew] 25/6/2019, accessed 2/7/2019, at: https://bit.ly/2XjjNw2

[3] Andrew E. Kramer, “Assad Meets Putin in a Surprise Visit to Russia, The New York Times, 17/5/2018, accessed on 2/7/2019, at: https://nyti.ms/2rRECRs

[4]This suggestion was made explicit, in a situation assessment by the, Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv: Zvi Magen, "Trilateral Meeting between Israel, the United States, and Russia, Reasons and Impact, INSS [Hebrew], 20/6/2019, accessed 2/7/2019 at: https://bit.ly/2J1FZWt