While Israeli headlines were captured by Poland’s new law (exonerating that country from involvement in Nazi crimes), by the prospect that Netanyahu may be questioned under caution in a bribery scandal (the submarine affair), and by plans to expel thousands of asylum seekers, Netanyahu conducted a diplomatic blitz. Within a few days, he met with US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the televised meeting with Trump in Davos on January 25, 2018, he heard from Trump: “We have removed the Jerusalem issue from the table.” Netanyahu then went on to Moscow to try to extract a similar statement from Putin, such as: “We have removed the Iranian issue from the table.” However, such a statement was not forthcoming and will not be in the foreseeable future. The Iranians and the Russians are eating at the same table. While Netanyahu waged an all-out war against the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran, Iranians shed blood, their own and others’, on Syrian soil. Today, Iran controls Damascus and is moving toward seizing command of the Golan Heights on Israel’s northeastern border.
In the face of this threat, Israel is seeking a “man in charge” (Putin) with whom to come to an agreement, perhaps sweetening the bitter Iranian pill. For six years, Israel kept to the sidelines while watching the massacre and destruction that the Syrian regime rained down on its own people. Israel saw Iran, Hezbollah, and later the Russians ally themselves with the bloody dictator in Damascus. Today Syria is in shambles. The opposition has been defeated, Iran has conquered, and Russia has taken over. Netanyahu is trying to change this new geopolitical reality and threatens to embroil Lebanon. One might ask: “Bibi, only now you wake up!?”
Netanyahu’s apparent chemistry with Putin might have elicited the latter’s understanding when Israel bombed “legitimate” targets in Syrian territory, such as convoys of sophisticated Iranian weapons moving through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The fact that Putin cannot do much to conciliate Netanyahu stems not just from shared Russian strategic interests with the Iranian regime, but also from the fact that he is mired deep in the Syrian mud and is under constant attack by the American Congress for interfering in the 2016 presidential elections.
Putin is simultaneously engaged on two fronts. He is facing sanctions by the US Congress, and on the Syrian front, he is seeking to reach an agreement that will keep the Assad regime in place and prevent the situation from veering out of control. He tried with all his might to pave the way for reconciliation between the Syrian regime and the opposition in the resort town of Sochi, but without success. The main opposition bloc refused to show up, so the participants were either Syrian Baath Party loyalists or factions close to the Russian regime. It is noteworthy that on the day the conference was held in Sochi, the US Treasury Department published a list of 200 Russian officials and oligarchs close to Putin whom the US views as hostile to American interests. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Americans acted to thwart the Sochi conference by not coming and by encouraging the Syrian opposition to boycott the meeting.
The fact that the Americans have succeeded in foiling Russian attempts to impose a Pax Russica in Syria derives from their sizable military presence there. Kurdish fighters, with American help, took over the ISIS capital of Raqqa, and they have full control of the country’s northeast, stretching from the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, which includes Syria’s water and oil resources.
In this war, the United States finds itself in an embarrassing position. Its ally and NATO partner, Turkey, is involved in a private war to remove Kurdish forces that have occupied territories near the Turkish border. The opposing interests of the forces involved in Syria create a situation in which each side has the power to neutralize the other, but no one has the power to decide the campaign in its favor. Hence the claim that Assad won is still far from the truth.
In the midst of this mess, when the Americans, Iranians, Turks and Russians are each trying to determine Syria’s fate and the Americans are trying to thwart Putin, enter Netanyahu with his own special problem: the construction of precision missile facilities by Iran on Lebanese soil. Would Putin persuade the Iranians to stop their attempts to arm Hezbollah with these missiles? Putin might have replied: “How can I convince the Iranians while you are working to scotch the nuclear agreement with Iran and to reinstate economic sanctions against them? We Russians suffer enough from American sanctions, and we oppose in principle any kind of economic sanctions, even against North Korea.” The issue that undoubtedly bothers Putin is: There’s enough chaos taking place in Syria and you, Netanyahu, wish to extend it by bringing Lebanon into the cauldron. This could turn into a major regional war.
Moreover, Iran itself is in the midst of an internal political storm because of the protests that have raged across the country. Prices of basic consumer goods are rising and the collapse of a government bank has resulted in losses of the savings of thousands. The calls against the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards are crystal clear: Stop supporting the Assad regime, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah and Hamas. In light of this, it does not appear that the Iranian regime is interested in expanding the cycle of violence into Lebanon itself, which would involve a confrontation with Israel. The demonstrations in Iran have not stopped; they are more sporadic and scattered, but tension exists because the problems have not disappeared. Images of Iranian women defiantly waving their headscarves have shocked the ruling religious establishment. The Iranian people are fed up with corruption, and they are also fed up with the control exerted by the Revolutionary Guards over their lives and economy, a control that stifles development and deters foreign investment.
The Ayatollah regime may want to ease internal strife by means of another war. Netanyahu may also be happy to enter a military adventure to escape indictment for corruption. Putin is known for having “exported” internal unrest to the Ukraine and Syria. Erdogan, for his part, is flexing his muscles against the Kurds, and Trump has already twittered that his button is bigger than Kim Jong-il’s. Secondary players such as Assad, Nasrallah and Haniyeh of Hamas have already proved that they are willing to sacrifice their citizens in order to maintain their rule.
At the same time, each and every one of these players has sampled the bitter taste of war. They realize that in war there are no winners, only the vanquished. Let us hope that the shaky political situation of each of the players, and their personal interests, will not overcome common sense and the good of their peoples. Despite their rivalries, however, each player has dictatorial ambitions, each detests democracy and espouses extremist ideology. These leaders feed off each other. As long as they dominate the stage, uncertainty can easily develop into all-out war.
*Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman