MESOPOTAMIA NEWS BACKGROUNDER : Putin plays Syria card in Israeli and Turkish elections

AL MONITOR –  6 April 2019 – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with less than a week remaining in the highest stakes election of his career, took one of his few remaining precious campaign days to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and it appeared to pay off for both leaders.

“After he milked the March 25 celebration with President Donald Trump in the White House, Netanyahu is looking toward Putin, who is still venerated by many former Soviet Union citizens who moved to Israel,” writes Ben Caspit. “In this last-minute trip, Netanyahu is again trying to convey that no one can replace him in terms of international status.”

“Netanyahu’s tete-a-tete with Putin,” adds Caspit, “his second one in less than two months and only five days before the elections, is also designed to harm a dangerous colleague of the prime minister, Avigdor Liberman. The former defense minister and Yisrael Beitenu head has been hovering around the Knesset threshold since the beginning of the campaign. Liberman will fight for every vote to earn a position to make the next prime minister’s life miserable. Netanyahu is trying to use Putin to attract the votes of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who share a birthplace with Liberman and make up a major constituency for him and his party.”

For Netanyahu, the visit was a likely boost for his campaign, and not just in wooing immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Putin also presented Netanyahu with the remains of Zachary Baumel, who was killed in Lebanon in 1982. The return of Baumel’s body carries emotional weight with Israelis, and the credit goes to Bibi, who asked Putin to help with this case two years ago.

Netanyahu, for his part, could not have been more effusive, telling Putin, “Mr. President, we are wholeheartedly grateful to you for your personal friendship, for your position and for the position of Russia, which shares these values with Israel.”
Putin, in his remarks, said, “As you may know, our military personnel and their Syrian partners helped find Zachary’s remains.”

Putin’s giving credit to Bashar al-Assad may have been a stunner in Damascus and Tehran, and perhaps deliberately so. A source at the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said that “Syria has no clue” about Baumel’s remains, and that the incident confirms “cooperation between terrorist groups and Mossad.”

This column last month described the emerging complexity and maneuvering among Assad and his creditors, Iran and Russia. There are those in the Syrian military who prefer to curry favor with Moscow, and Putin could be showing that he can and will play that card.

A senior Iranian official cautioned last month that Israel might have the potential to create friction between Tehran and Moscow, if not managed carefully.

Israel attacked Syrian and Iranian-backed forces near Aleppo March 28, well outside of Israel’s usual zone of operations, signaling an expanded intent and potential for escalation.

“As Syria slowly moves into a post-war stage,” writes Maxim Suchkov, Putin has “outsourced the marshy process of political settlement, return of the refugees and reconstruction to agencies within Foreign and Defense ministries to personally focus on riskier yet more politically valuable assets: high-level mediation of the Israeli-Iranian and Turkish-Syrian conundrums.”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Moscow on April 8.

Putin may be looking to advance his idea for a working group on the gradual expulsion of foreign forces that had been discussed with Netanyahu when they met in February. “But each party may see the outcome somewhat differently,” adds Suchkov. “The idea of a comprehensive working group bringing together the Russians, Israelis, Syrians and perhaps the Americans, Iranians and Turks seeks, in the words of Putin, ‘to settle Syria after the ultimate suppression of all terrorist hotbeds and to have all foreign contingents depart Syria to fully restore its statehood and sovereignty.'”

The emphasis on the expulsion of foreign forces merits comment, and may be another concern of Iran, as well as a potential opening to Washington. For the United States and Israel, foreign forces mean Iranian and Iranian-backed armed units and groups. We covered Putin’s emphasis on the departure of foreign fighters in May 2018, as a potential opening bid for engaging the United States at the cusp of diplomacy addressing the post-conflict stage in Syria. For Putin, it may also be part of a package to close the deal with Syria and Turkey on Idlib, where most of the jihadist terrorist and armed groups remain.

“Although the Astana format showed even most incogitable compositions of actors are not impossible, the modern reality suggests that all of the outside actors getting on board is unlikely and probably unproductive at this stage,” concludes Suchkov. “Until then, Moscow is likely to eye a separate working group for Israel, Syria and Iran and will continue to forge leverage and brainstorm incentives via bilateral dealings.”

Although Putin may have been set back by US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, as we wrote here last week, he appears to have regained his footing following Bibi’s visit. No doubt there are risks and uncertainties and limits to the Russian president’s influence and leverage in Tehran and Jerusalem. But whether in the form of a three-way shuttle diplomacy among Iran, Syria and Israel, or just between Israel and Syria, Putin has again repositioned himself as a go-to broker on the Israel-Syria border.

With regard to the Turkish local elections, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost Ankara, Istanbul and all major cities except Bursa, “Putin might have helped Erdogan duck a bigger defeat,” writes Kadri Gursel. “The Sochi deal the two leaders reached in September 2017 on Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib has long proven to be a failure, but a Russian-backed Syrian offensive on the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the region has thus far been deferred, which cannot be explained without factoring in Turkey’s political calendar. The launch of an offensive prior to the March 31 polls and its potential side effects on Turkey could have led to larger electoral losses for Erdogan’s government.”


“In light of these timing considerations, the likelihood of an offensive on Idlib has now increased,” Gursel continues. “At the same time, Ankara is likely to step up its pursuit of a military operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units — which Turkey sees as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a designated terrorist group — in a bid to push Erdogan’s election defeat out of focus. In a campaign speech a day before the elections, Erdogan said, ‘The first thing after the elections will be to resolve the Syrian issue — on the ground rather than at the [negotiating] table, if possible.’ This was not for nothing — he was well aware he was up for a bad outcome from the polls.”