Don’t Expect the Jerusalem Summit to Drive a Wedge between Russia and Iran

June 14, 2019 | Anna Borshchevskaya
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Later this month, an unprecedented meeting will take place in Jerusalem among the top national-security officials of the U.S., Israel, and Russia to discuss the situation in Syria. Moscow is likely to seek financial aid for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country, or at the very least an easing of sanctions on Bashar al-Assad. Washington and Jerusalem are likely to pressure the Russian government to reduce the presence of Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias in Syria, or at the very least to keep them away from the Israeli border. But to Anna Borshchevskaya, any promises made by Vladimir Putin’s representatives are not to be trusted:

From the start, Russia’s Syria strategy has been predicated on partnership with Iran; indeed, Moscow avoided a quagmire there in part because it could rely on Tehran’s proxies to do the heavy lifting. Over time, the war brought the partnership to unprecedented heights. . . . Iran’s militias have reportedly even used Russian flags to avoid Israeli airstrikes, according to sources in Russia, Israel, and the Syrian opposition.

Since Moscow first launched its Syria intervention, Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly and publicly told Putin that Israel has deep security concerns about Iranian expansion. Despite acknowledging these concerns, however, Putin has remained circumspect about actually doing anything to address them, at least in public. [Moreover], even if Moscow wanted to push Iran out, it seems unable to do so. Diplomacy alone would not do the trick, and using military force is unfeasible. Russia may rule Syria’s skies, but Iran holds a stronger position on the ground. Putin has been careful about not getting too bogged down there, and it is difficult to imagine he would use his military to dismantle Iranian and Hizballah weapons infrastructure. . . .

Accordingly, U.S. and Israeli officials should not simply take Moscow at its word in Jerusalem, nor have illusions about what it can realistically deliver. It is too early to tell what a “good deal” with Russia might look like, but any agreement reached must be based on verifiable assurances. Moreover, lifting sanctions against Russia and recognizing Assad as Syria’s legitimate leader should remain off the table. No agreement is better than a bad deal that boosts Moscow’s prestige at the expense of regional security—prestige that is already enhanced by holding this meeting in the first place.

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