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Aleksandr Aksenenok

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC Vice-president

On July 20, Jerusalem hosted a summit meeting for the national security advisers of Israel, the US, and Russia that was unusual both in terms of composition and thematic content. Intensive negotiations held in bilateral and trilateral formats, including meetings with Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, focused on a wide range of regional security issues, as well as other issues non-related to the Middle East. While the situation is only exacerbating, and there are practically no stable channels for bilateral negotiations on different vectors or they are being used occasionally, the participants of the negotiators touched upon the issues of civil conflicts in Ukraine and Venezuela, combined with an increasing wave of problems that aggravate Russia-US relations.

However, the Middle East content prevailed, no matter how varied the range of issues was. Namely, Iran’s policy and its role in the region, especially in the Syrian conflict.

The anti-Iranian Middle East policy of Trump’s Administration has strengthened Israel's determination to defend its interests by force. A certain division of roles between the two countries has been observed. Israel exerts constant military pressure on Iran with airstrikes at its facilities in Syria, the United States increasing financial and economic sanctions. A new situation emerged and is now perceived as a potential flashpoint for a direct clash between Israel and Iran on the Syrian territory, which would put Russia, having long-standing partnerships with both countries, in an extremely delicate position.

The trilateral meeting in Jerusalem showed significant differences in the approaches of Russia and the US-Israel tandem towards the tactics regarding the role of Iran in Syria and the region as a whole. At the same time, judging by the final statements, the parties agreed that this new format could become a useful political asset for removing any misunderstanding in regards with each other's intentions and plans. In this context, forthcoming trustful consultations at this level, as confirmed by the Israel's Prime Minister, cannot be ruled out. There are also opportunities for Russian diplomacy to moderate the situation between Israel and Iran, while Israel could help mitigate irritants in relations between Russia and the United States on the whole range of issues of the Syrian settlement.

According to European estimates, Russia is still trying to maintain its balancing role between Israel and Iran while preserving effective working relations with its Iranian military ally on the ground. Apparently, this role of Russia has been tacitly accepted by partners, including Iran. And only de-escalation of tension can make it possible to find a formula that would satisfy Israel’s real security needs and allow Iran to outline acceptable limits for its influence in the region, including political and economic positions in Syria.


On July 20, Jerusalem hosted a summit meeting for the national security advisers of Israel, the US, and Russia that was unusual both in terms of composition and thematic content. Intensive negotiations held in bilateral and trilateral formats, including meetings with Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, focused on a wide range of regional security issues, as well as other issues non-related to the Middle East. While the situation is only exacerbating, and there are practically no stable channels for bilateral negotiations on different vectors or they are being used occasionally, the participants of the negotiators touched upon the issues of civil conflicts in Ukraine and Venezuela, combined with an increasing wave of problems that aggravate Russia-the US relations.

However, no matter how varied the range of issues was, the Middle East content prevailed. Namely, Iran’s policy and its role in the region, especially in the Syrian conflict. It was Netanyahu who proposed to hold such consultations, and this fact predetermined the focus on Iran, that has always been considered in Israel as an “existential threat”. Fears of this kind only intensified as Iran, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and during the war in Syria since 2011, consistently increased its military-strategic positions and political influence along Baghdad — Damascus — Beirut vector.

Andrey Kortunov, Michel Duclos:
Helping Iran to Make the Right Choice

The anti-Iranian Middle East policy of Trump’s Administration has strengthened Israel's determination to defend its interests by force. A certain division of roles between the two countries has been observed. Israel exerts constant military pressure on Iran with airstrikes at its facilities in Syria, the United States increasing financial and economic sanctions. A new situation emerged and is now perceived as a potential flashpoint for a direct clash between Israel and Iran on the Syrian territory, which would put Russia, having long-standing partnerships with both countries, in an extremely delicate position.

On the eve of the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem, various speculations about the upcoming “backstage deal” were widely spread in Russian and foreign media. The United States and Israel would allegedly propose Russia to put pressure on Iran in order to curtail the Iranian military presence (regular military units, divisions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as Iranian-controlled Lebanese Hezbollahs and the so-called "people's militia"). In response, the United States will be ready to recognize the legitimacy of Assad, lift the sanctions from the Syrian regime, and contribute to the economic recovery of Syria.

Of course, any objectively thinking expert would consider such predictions far-fetched and rather superficial. While there is a need for a meaningful conversation on the whole range of issues for the future of Syria in the context of the strategic interests of Russia, Israel, and the United States; and as the tension has been growing, this need is getting more and more urgent. Before giving any assessment, it is important to trace which new trends in the Middle East policy of the United States and Israel served as the ground for the summit in Jerusalem and how they affect the interests of Russia in the region.

From Obama to Trump: Middle East U-Turns

During the presidency of Obama the US strategic line in the Middle East as a whole did not go beyond the traditional framework of previous administrations being committed to Israel's security, maintaining allied relations with Saudi Arabia, and deterring Iran. At the same time, the peculiarities of Obama’s administration have revealed in exactly these three key areas.

As Netanyahu’s policy on the Palestinian issue was shifting more and more to the right-radical side, which deprived the Palestinians of practical opportunities to have their own statehood, serious irritants gradually accumulated in relations between the US and Israel. The President and his Secretary of State J. Kerry reaffirmed the internationally recognized solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of coexistence of the two states and publicly criticized the expansion of settlement construction in the West Bank. Since 2011, after the collapse of the seemingly unshakable Arab regimes the US policy in the Gulf region has been shaped on a more pragmatic basis, on the principle of a "moving equilibrium." This implied some kind of balancing between Iran (the regional aspect of its policy did not come to the fore) and Saudi Arabia (the threats from Iran, as the Americans stated at that point, should not be exaggerated). All this caused strong discontent both in Riyadh and in Tel Aviv. The signing of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program (JCPOA) was perceived in these capitals as a violation of allied obligations and served as an impetus for the rapprochement of Israel and Saudi Arabia on the anti-Iranian basis.

Assessing the zigzags of the US policy with the change of administration, it can be stated that the difficulties with its formation are connected with the clash of two contradictory realities: on the one hand, Trump’s obsessive desire to become “anti-Obama” in the Middle East (and not only), and on the other, the inability to make this without infringing the US national interests and the normal functioning of all departments involved in foreign policy activities — the Department of State, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and special services. This was especially evident in the internal struggle that Trump had to deal with while conducting a steep drift towards Israel and Saudi Arabia with a simultaneous shift in policy towards Iran.

In general, it can be stated that steep turns and unpredictable decisions in Trump’s Middle East policy have increased the degree of tension in the region, created new obstacles to resolving multi-year conflicts and stabilizing the situation through multilateral cooperation mechanisms.

Never in the history of the United States after the presidential election have senior posts at key management levels been filled so slowly and with great scandals. Trump broke all records for the number of layoffs and rearrangements of prominent figures in foreign policy; some of them (Tillerson, McMaster, Matthews, Cohen) expressed disagreement with the spontaneous decisions of the President regarding Iran in many cases. For the same reasons, the CIA has undergone personnel changes in the leadership, that, like in the case with IAEA, did not confirm the information Trump needed about Iran’s violation of the terms of the “nuclear dossier” agreement.

The withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, which was largely the sole decision of the President, caused a barrage of criticism from well-known American diplomats, politicians, and Middle Eastern experts. W. Burns, former US Under Secretary of State, one of the initiators of secret negotiations with Iran, noted: “But we don’t live in an ideal world. Diplomacy requires difficult compromises. And the nuclear deal achieved the best of the available alternatives… By failing to operate in good faith, the administration has weakened — not strengthened — our hand.” According to J. Allen, President of Brookings's Center on the United States, Trump’s decision "would be a much more serious blow to American interests and to US global leadership than Trump’s previous treaty-related decisions." T. Pickering, a prominent American diplomat who worked as ambassador to a number of leading world capitals, including Moscow, calls for a change of the political vector with regard to Iran and a reorientation of US foreign policy. His position included the following important points: "Withdrawing from the deal has left the U.S. isolated and weakened the international consensus on Iran, seriously damaging the transatlantic alliance, undercutting the U.S. position in the global financial system, and putting U.S. credibility on the line."

The above estimates represent the quintessence of the reaction in the United States to a sharp turn in the US policy on Iran and, as a result, to a change in the nature of relations with Saudi Arabia. According to widespread opinion in the US Congress and in expert circles, with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh started playing a “dangerous game” in the region, making use of the “strategy of kowtowing” conducted by Trump, as the authoritative American political scientist M. Lynch put it. Such strategy deprives American diplomacy of the ability to restrain regional ambitions countering to the long-term interests of the United States.

The anti-Iranian strategy of Trump’s administration did not bring dividends and only added new dangerous elements to the conflict centers in Syria, Yemen, and the entire Gulf region.

International efforts, including Russia-the US cooperation, to resolve the Syrian conflict, in which Iran should and can play its positive role under certain conditions, are significantly complicated. The US Administration report on Syria submitted to the Congress contains the requirement of “the removal of all Iranian-led forces from Syria” as one of the three strategic goals along with “the defeat of ISIS” and “resolution of the Syrian crisis through a political solution in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254”. This requirement is in no way consistent with the continued illegitimate US military presence in eastern Syria, which allows to support alternative to Damascus local government structures, jeopardizing its territorial integrity.

The war in Yemen and the tensions around Iran spurred the arms race in the Gulf region. Over the past few years, military spending by countries in the GCC has grown by 6% hitting an all-time high of USD 100 billion. The widespread competition between the United States and major European suppliers for multibillion-dollar defense orders has weakened the possibility of external influence on regional players, getting more and more uncontrolled.

The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) project launched during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia (May 2017) with a clear anti-Iran focus turned out to be an inoperative tool due to suspicions about the intentions of the United States, that did not hide its opportunistic goals, and also because of the conflict interests among its members. A number of Arab states members of the "alliance" do not consider Iran a threat to security in the Middle East. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, none of the states in the region supports the policy towards confrontation with Iran, and even more so military actions. Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman advocate for maintaining dialog with Tehran and resolving the Gulf crisis through political means. Egypt and Jordan are also not enthusiastic in supporting the United States and Saudi Arabia, although they refrain from public criticism given the strong dependence on the financial investments.

One of the reasons for the failure of the US diplomacy is the attitude of the most states in the region towards Saudi Arabia, whose policy in the region is viewed as having "great-power" ambitions, unpredictable, and gravitating towards dominance. Trump’s opponents in the United States are also paying attention to this. Saudi Arabia's boycott of Qatar and the unexpected support of this decision by the US President, contrary to the recommendations of the Department of State and the military, caused a deep split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. At the same time, the previous US administrations relied precisely on this military-political association as a regional instrument of pressure on Iran.

The policy of maximum US pressure on Iran through increasing the military presence of extra-regional powers in the Persian Gulf, the development of a “tanker war”, and the imposition of ever new sanctions created a potential threat of open conflict, given that both sides declare their unwillingness to bring the matter to a military clash and signal their readiness to negotiate. In general, it can be stated that steep turns and unpredictable decisions in Trump’s Middle East policy have increased the degree of tension in the region, created new obstacles to resolving multi-year conflicts and stabilizing the situation through multilateral cooperation mechanisms.

Israel’s Strategy in Syria and Russia's Interests

After the change of Administration in the US, the “shadow war” of Israel in Syria underwent significant changes. While the US was increasing the sanctions, Israel began to escalate its pressure on Iran. With the outbreak of the civil war, Israel was only striking at convoys and arms depots of the Lebanese Hezbollah, later with the strengthening of Iran’s military infrastructure and the Shiite “people's militia”, the number and the geography of objects significantly increased. Military bases, concentration of military force controlled by Iran, factories for production and assembly of missiles, and bases of unmanned offensive arms were subjected to air attacks. Thus, Israel made it clear that Iran’s military activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are under constant surveillance. In the changed situation around Iran, Israel’s military-political leadership considers it possible to eliminate the military threat on its part by combining constant force pressure and the use of diplomatic means. Russia is given a special place in the foreign policy in the hope of providing assistance on its part, taking into account the influence on Damascus and special relations with Iran. Supposedly, in the medium term, as the situation stabilizes, Russia will not need military cooperation with Iran in Syria that much. Issues of restoring the ruined economy and political influence on the Syrian leadership will come to the fore, which will strengthen elements of rivalry in Russia-Iran relations.

At the same time, adjustments were made to the military tactics. On Israel’s initiative, agreements were reached on improving the channel of military communication with Russia and on the fullest exchange of information in order to avoid unintentional clashes. Russia outlined its “red lines” and, judging by Netanyahu’s statements, during the trilateral summit in Jerusalem in June Russia’s warnings about the consequences of Israel’s military activity, including for the security of Russian personnel and military facilities, were perceived with serious understanding. Israel’s strikes in Syria are aimed primarily at the military infrastructure of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and their personnel. Contrary to previous years of “maximum secrecy” it is now officially announced every time with an indication of the objects struck. Thus, Israel ensures relatively “free hands”, seeks understanding of its motives on the part of the international community, and makes Damascus understand that close contact with Iranian strongholds should be avoided.

After the Syrian forces were moved to the southern Syria to the Israeli-Syrian demarcation line in the Golan Heights area (in July 2018), a local point of tension occurred that can be compared to the one in the northwest in Idlib or in the east - in the areas where the US military contingent is located. Russia, the USA, and Israel, with the participation of Jordan, agreed on creating a “security zone” 70–80 km inland from the border with Israel within the Syrian territory. These agreements provided for the withdrawal of all Iranian forces from these areas and their patrolling by the Russian military. Russia held consultations with Iran and Syria, whose consent on the administrative status of the territories bordering Israel was to be part of multilateral agreements on the south of Syria.

However, according to Israel’s and Western estimates, over the past year, pro-Iranian formations under various coverings have once again entrenched themselves in the immediate vicinity of the border with Israel. Hezbollah and Shiite militias patrol areas dressed as uniformed Syrian regime forces deploy former rebel fighters in the provinces of Sweida and Quneitra to patrol areas and provide intelligence directly to the Iran-backed paramilitary group. During the trilateral summit in Jerusalem, Netanyahu strongly urged that "Israel would not allow Iran, calling for our destruction, to establish a bridgehead on our borders." Israel’s military leaders are seriously considering a scenario in which Iran, in the event of an extreme aggravation with the United States, could open a “second front” on the northern border of Israel taking advantage of the increased military potential of Hezbollah on its southern border.

Thus, the initiative of Israel to organize a new format for Syria in Jerusalem was put forward at the time when the erroneous estimations could lead to an exchange of blows with the escalation into an armed confrontation of a regional scale. Moreover, on the eve of the parliamentary elections Israel does not want to be drawn into a war that has no winners, but they cannot afford inaction.

Jerusalem Format: Are there any Further Prospects?

Multilateral efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis create a system of peculiar concentric negotiating circles, that are so far loosely connected with each other. This is a negotiation track of various levels between Russia, Turkey and Iran (“Astana Format”), the mission of the UN Secretary-General Special Representative, the summit of Russia, France, Germany, Turkey (the possibility to continue meetings in this format was discussed at the meeting between Putin and Macron on August 19), the so-called "Small Group" of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Russia occupies a central place in this negotiation system, having working contacts with all the players on the “Syrian field”, unlike other participants.

Will the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem at the level of the Heads of the National Security Councils of Russia, the USA, and Israel become an effective channel to achieve proper understanding that would allow us to timely suppress the outbreaks of military tension and bring together a vision of the future? It is still difficult to fully estimate such an opportunity, although certain nuances provide the basis for reflection on further possible scenarios.

The statements of the participants following the results of the negotiations sounded optimistic, which gives reason to assume mutual interest and keep to this negotiation track not only as a “fire-fighting” tool. Nikolai Patrushev noted the "spirit of goodwill" and the coherence of opinions on most issues, however, "we have to conduct a dialog on how to implement this,» he said. Bolton, a well-known hardliner for Russia and Iran, also noted "We didn’t come with the expectation we were going to solve all the problems, or even most of them" during the negotiations, which he described as "historic." The initiator of the summit, the Prime Minister of Israel commended the trilateral meeting designed for an internal audience on the eve of the parliamentary elections.

As for the content of negotiations, all participants reaffirmed their previous positions in public speeches, emphasizing the desire to move on the oncoming tracks. Russia's approach to the problem of Iran’s military presence in Syria was stated earlier by President Putin: “The start of a more active phrase of the political process, foreign armed forces will be withdrawing from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Explaining the words of the President of the Russian Federation, A. Lavrentiev, the Special Envoy to Syria, emphasized that Moscow addressed its appeal to "everyone, including the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah and, of course, the Iranians."

Taking into account the recurring aggravations between Israel and Iran, the Head of the Russian Security Council gave further explanations of Russia’s position in the sense that the withdrawal of Iran’s military units and allied forces should be considered in conjunction with the complete elimination of the foreign military presence in Syria. This is the ultimate goal in the settlement process, and it cannot be achieved in one step. The Russian side emphasized the need to reduce tensions through a conversation with Iran, rather than confrontation, and it was suggested that they take oncoming steps in order not to turn Syria into an arena of geopolitical confrontation. Russia shares Israel’s concerns about ensuring security, but proceeds from the assumption that other states of the region have their own national interests in this area. In response to a well-known set of accusations against Iran, Patrushev pointed out that it is unacceptable for Moscow to view Iran as the main threat to regional security, let alone equal it with ISIS.

The trilateral meeting in Jerusalem showed significant differences in the approaches of Russia and the US-Israel tandem towards the tactics regarding the role of Iran in Syria and the region as a whole. At the same time, judging by the final statements, the parties agreed that this new format could become a useful political asset for removing any misunderstanding in regards with each other's intentions and plans. In this context, forthcoming trustful consultations at this level, as confirmed by the Israel's Prime Minister, cannot be ruled out. There are also opportunities for Russian diplomacy to moderate the situation between Israel and Iran, while Israel could help mitigate irritants in relations between Russia and the United States on the whole range of issues of the Syrian settlement.

According to European estimates, Russia is still trying to maintain its balancing role between Israel and Iran while preserving effective working relations with its Iranian military ally on the ground. Apparently, this role of Russia has been tacitly accepted by partners, including Iran. And only de-escalation of tension can make it possible to find a formula that would satisfy Israel’s real security needs and allow Iran to outline acceptable limits for its influence in the region, including political and economic positions in Syria.


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