The July 16 meeting in Helsinki between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been surrounded by controversy over matters such as whether Trump “misspoke” in the press conference in discounting Russian interference in the 2016 US election. However, the two leaders were also apparently able to discuss some mutual interests, including a common concern for the security of Israel, especially with respect to the current situation in southern Syria. At a joint press conference President Putin said in his remarks:
“Also, crushing terrorists in the southwest of Syria – the south of Syria – should be brought to the full compliance with the Treaty of 1974 about the separation of forces – about separation of forces of Israel and Syria. This will bring peace to Golan Heights and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also to provide security of the state of Israel.
Mr. President paid special attention to the issue during today’s negotiations, and I would like to confirm that Russia is interested in this development, and this will act accordingly. Thus far, we will make a step toward creating a lasting peace in compliance with the respective resolutions of Security Council, for instance, the Resolution 338.”
President Trump also discussed Israeli security in response to a question about Syria:
“We’ve worked with Israel long and hard for many years, many decades. I think we’ve never — never has anyone, any country been closer than we are. President Putin also is helping Israel. And we both spoke with Bibi Netanyahu, and they would like to do certain things with respect to Syria having to do with the safety of Israel. So in that respect, we absolutely would like to work in order to help Israel, and Israel will be working with us. So both countries would work jointly.
And I think that, when you look at all of the progress that’s been made in certain sections with the eradication of ISIS, we’re about 98 percent, 99 percent there – and other things that have taken place that we’ve done, and that, frankly, Russia has helped us with in certain respects. But I think that working with Israel is a great thing, and creating safety for Israel is something that both President Putin and I would like to see very much.”
(You can read the complete transcript here.)
While it is not known what was discussed privately between Putin and Trump, the press conference seemed to indicate some good news for Israel – that both the US and Russia are committed to Israel’s security on the Syrian border, including implementation of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement which established a zone of separation and force limitation between Israel and Syria. Following the press conference, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement thanking both leaders:
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commends the abiding commitment of the US and President Donald Trump to the security of Israel, as expressed at the meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The friendship between Israel and the US has never been stronger.
Prime Minister Netanyahu also very much appreciates the security coordination between Israel and Russia and the clear position expressed by President Putin regarding the need to uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria.”
While Israel’s close relationship with the US is well established, Israel’s growing diplomatic and military coordination with Russia is less well known.
Netanyahu was recently in Russia for a “private visit” where he watched the World Cup and met with President Putin. During the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated the Israeli position that Iran must leave Syria and made the following remarks:
“It is clear that our focus is on Syria and Iran. Our view that Iran needs to leave Syria is well-known; it is not new to you. Several hours ago a Syrian UAV penetrated Israel’s airspace. We shot it down and we will continue to take strong action against any trickle [of fire] and any infiltration into Israel’s airspace or territory. We expect that everyone will respect this sovereignty and that Syria will strictly abide by the  Separation of Forces Agreement. The cooperation between us is a central component in preventing a conflagration and deterioration of these and other situations; therefore, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to discuss these matters and, of course, all other issues. Truly, thank you.”
While Israel and Russia have had friendly relations since the end of the Cold War, Israeli engagement with Moscow has been taken to a new level since Russia entered the Syrian civil war in 2015 to back its client, the Assad regime. To add complexity, the Assad regime has also been backed by Iran and its militias, including the Shi’ite Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
While Israel has had no desire to enter the Syrian civil war, it has provided humanitarian and medical aid to Syrians, and it remains determined to prevent a permanent Iranian presence in Syria – a red line has led to numerous reported Israeli strikes on Iranian bases and fighters in Syria. Given that Russia is in a loose alliance with the Assad regime and Iran in Syria, Israeli coordination with Russia is necessary at times to avoid unintended conflict with a superpower. Now that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be cementing its victory in Syria, Israel is seeking to persuade Russia to rid Syria of Iranian influence, especially near its border.
Ultimately Israel understands that it is Russia largely calling the shots in Syria, as former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro wrote in Haaretz:
“Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to be given considerable credit for his ability to maintain a respectful dialogue with Putin over the past three years, enabling Putin to understand Israel’s security red lines in Syria and its determination to enforce them.
When Russia deployed its military to Syria in 2015, and the Israel-Russia dialogue began in earnest, I was still serving as U.S. Ambassador to Israel. I occasionally received inquiries from colleagues in Washington, some puzzled, others irritated, asking why Netanyahu was ‘cozying up’ to Putin at a time when Russia was killing Syrian civilians and engaging in aggression against Ukraine.
My answer was quite simple: Israel is a small regional power, and all of a sudden, it found that it had a superpower operating in its backyard. Under such circumstances, Israel had no choice but to develop and sustain a productive dialogue with Russia, to ensure that Russia would not do harm to Israel’s security or curtail its freedom of action, as it surely could if it wanted to.
I assured my colleagues that Netanyahu was not the least bit naive about who Putin was, and that the relationship he was building was utilitarian in nature, ensuring Israel would be able to act to defend its security in Syria. No more, no less. I still believe that today. But the atmosphere in which Israel must navigate its superpower relationships is changing dramatically.”
While Israel’s desire for a good relationship with Russia is understandable, Russia’s interest in Israel’s security appears less clear. Prof Hillel Frisch has attempted to explain it in an article titled “Why Russia Needs Israel” published by BESA. He claims that President Putin seeks to create an alliance of minorities against the Sunni majority of the Middle East. He writes:
“Moscow’s view is clear. The major threat both within and without Russia’s borders is Sunni Islam: within, because the overwhelming majority of Russian Muslims are Sunni; and without, because a Turkey led by a Sunni fundamentalist leader with imperial Ottoman ambitions poses a greater threat than Shiite Iran – especially as most Russian Muslims are not only Sunni but broadly related to Turkic ethnicity. Hence Putin’s determination to preserve the strategic relationship with Iran in Syria and beyond, and hence his perception of Israel’s regional geostrategic importance. Israel understands the long-term sagacity of the Russian vision, but cannot allow it to be at the expense of its own short-term goals.
For Israel, the Russian vision is plausible only if it works to rid Syria of the Iranian presence, joins forces to topple its Islamist regime, and – until that goal is achieved – helps wean the Alawite regime in Damascus away from Tehran.”
However, Israel has its own interests which appear to differ from Russia in important respects. At the moment they include closer cooperation with its Sunni Arab neighbours who are concerned by Iran’s regional aggression and the prospect of it gaining nuclear weapons – especially Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Israel, to its credit, has so far been able to balance its close alliance with the United States, good relations with Russia and growing ties with the Sunni Arab states. However, while Russia claims it is acting to distance Iran from the Israeli-Syrian border, Israeli military sources confirmed that arecent Syrian army campaign in the area of Daraa, near the border, saw cooperation between the Russians army, Syrian forces, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian militias. According to Syrian opposition sources, the operation included meetings between representatives of the Russian army and commanders of pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, which were held in areas just 30 kilometres from the Israeli border, according to the Times of Israel.
Perhaps when dealing with Russia it is best to remember President Putin’s own words from his joint press conference with President Trump:
“As to who is to be believed and to who is not to be believed, you can trust no one, if you take this. Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America, and I do defend the interests of the Russian Federation.”
Indeed – and this is likely the approach the Israeli Government takes as well.