Official photograph of US, Russian, and Israeli officials. Photo Credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
National Security Advisor John Bolton met with his Russian and Israeli counterparts, Nikolai Patrushev and Meir Ben-Shabbat, on June 24, 2019. An Israeli defense source on Al-Monitor described the historic trilateral summit as “a crazy event…fifty-two years after Jerusalem’s liberation, we are bringing together…the heads of the American and Russian security councils to discuss arrangements for Syria after the war, with us as part of the process.”[i] Despite the success in bringing the players to the table, Patrushev mostly sided with Iran, advocating for an Israeli-Iranian compromise. It appears unlikely, therefore, that significant progress or change in regional activity will occur.
The meeting comes at the worst time for Iran. The Islamic Republic is still struggling to overturn the effect of harsh US sanctions that followed the American withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iranian attacks on ships in the Gulf of Oman and the downing of an American drone by an Iranian surface-to-air missile in international airspace have contributed to the current stand-off between Washington and Tehran. The first American allegations were met with Russian skepticism, and Nikolai Patrushev confirmed Iran’s version of events, stating that the drone attack was shot down in Iranian air space.[ii]
Russia positions itself as the “indispensable middleman” in the Middle East.[iii] As such, it places itself as Iran’s protector, but this does not make the two countries clear-cut allies. So although Russia defends Iran rhetorically, in practice the states have a difficult relationship. They cooperate superficially, especially when their shared anti-Western preferences overlap. This enables Russia to promote its interests, as Iranian-led anti-Americanism strengthens Russia’s influence in the region. However, Iran is also problematic for Russia, as the two countries compete for influence in the Middle East and South Caucasus. Tensions have specifically risen over administrative issues in Syria, and skirmishes between Russian and Iranian troops have become more common.
At the same time, however, Patrushev proved ready to voice Iran’s position during the meeting, highlighting Iran’s important role in the fight against terrorism in Syria. He also reemphasized President Putin’s line of thought: “first of all we should respect other countries interests and then make them respect ours.”[iv] Russia rhetorically appears to be opposed to any deal that would antagonize Iran, highlighting that “Moscow would not mind helping Trump out, but it cannot serve as a provider of free geopolitical services to Washington. As Putin made it clear to Pompeo, there is a price—a full reversal of U.S. confrontational policies against Russia, including the lifting of all sanctions.”[v] Pro-Kremlin activists argue that “helping the Americans eject Iran from Syria would prove counterproductive for Russia.”[vi] They argue that after solving the Iranian issue, the U.S. and Israel will target Russia, eradicating “all the achievements gained in Syria.”[vii] Therefore, despite a strong sense of mutual interests being brought to the table, there are clear political barriers that will be stumbling blocks to reaching a solution. Additionally, whether Russia even has the power to influence and curb Iran is also a factor that must be taken into consideration.
The meeting was held to build the groundwork for a deal that could weaken Russian ties to Iran and limit, if not completely terminate, Iran’s presence in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, heading the Israeli delegations to the talks, highlighted that there was “a wider basis for cooperation between the three of [them] than many believe.”[viii]
The alignment of American, Russian, and Israeli interests is particularly interesting due to the unique nature of the Russo-Israeli relationship. “Putin understood a long time ago that without Israel, he will have a hard time stabilizing the situation in Syria,” an Israeli cabinet source stated on Al-Monitor.[ix] Russia and Israel have a “somewhat underrated special relationship.”[x] Since Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, each side views the other as a significant player. It is important to note that “the interests of the two states are only rarely identical, but often are in sync.”[xi] Significantly, the Russo-Israeli relationship is considered “interest-based” rather than “value-based” within the Middle East, allowing Russia to cater to different agendas in the region.[xii] Israel perceives closer ties with Russia as useful, as Russia is aligned with Israel’s main rivals in the Middle East: Iran and Syria. Even though Russia is publicly opposed to Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and supports Syria’s claim to sovereignty over the region, President Putin nonetheless maintains a special relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. This is exemplified by the February 2018 incident in which Syrian air defence shot down an Israeli fighter plane and Netanyahu was reportedly convinced by Putin to refrain from escalating the conflict.[xiii]
Overall, a possible deal could include US and Israeli recognition of the Assad regime and a lifting of American sanctions from Damascus. In return, the Russians would have to convince President Bashar al-Assad and Iran to bring about an Iranian pull-out from Syria.[xiv] At least in the short term, however, this seems unlikely, as Russia has repeatedly proven to be unwilling to back away from Iran.
[i] Ben Caspit, “US, Israeli, Russian Security Chiefs to meet in Jerusalem,” Al-Monitor, June 14th 2019. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/israel-united-states-russia-iran-benjamin-netanyahu-putin.html.
[ii] Reuters, “Downed U.S. Drone Was in Iranian Airspace, Putin’s Aide Says,” The Moscow Times, June 25th 2019. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/06/25/downed-us-drone-was-in-iranian-airspace-putins-aide-says-a66147.
[iii] Joshua Krasna, “Russia Foreign Policy Papers, Moscow on the Mediterranean: Russia and Israel’s Relationship,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, June 2018. https://www.fpri.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/krasna2018.pdf.
[iv] “The World Order 2018 Documentary,” Vesti, March 30 2018. https://off-guardian.org/2018/03/15/no-russia-no-world-full-movie-world-order-2018/.
[v] Vladimir Frolov, “Russia-U.S.-Israel Meeting in Jerusalem is Doomed to Fail. Here is Why,” The Moscow Times, June 20th 2019. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/06/20/russia-us-israel-meeting-in-jerusalem-next-monday-is-doomed-to-fail-here-is-why-a66079.
[vi] Cyril Jawlah, “Pro-Kremlin Russian Experts: We Cannot Trust the US in any deal against Iran; After the US Solves the Iranian Issue, Washington will come after Russia,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, June 13th 2019. https://www.memri.org/reports/pro-kremlin-russian-experts-we-cannot-trust-us-any-deal-against-iran-after-us-solves-iranian
[viii] Tovah Lazaroff, “US, Russian, Isreli Understanding Iranian Forces Will Leave Syria,” The Jerusalem Post, June 25th 2019. https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/US-Russia-and-Israel-meet-in-unprecedented-trilateral-summit-watch-live-593609.
[ix] Ben Caspit, “US, Israeli, Russian Security Chiefs to meet in Jerusalem,” Al-Monitor, June 14th 2019. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/israel-united-states-russia-iran-benjamin-netanyahu-putin.html.
[x] Joshua Krasna, “Russia Foreign Policy Papers, Moscow on the Mediterranean: Russia and Israel’s Relationship,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, June 2018. https://www.fpri.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/krasna2018.pdf.
[xiv] Ben Caspit, “US, Israeli, Russian Security Chiefs to meet in Jerusalem,” Al-Monitor, June 14th 2019. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/israel-united-states-russia-iran-benjamin-netanyahu-putin.html.