Five days before the first American-Russian summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to meet Putin on Wednesday, 11 July. It was his third visit to the Russian capital this year, and his eleventh since Russia had begun its military intervention in Syria in September 2015.
The main topic between the two leaders on 11 July was the future Iranian role and military presence in Syria and how far Moscow could have an impact on future Iranian behaviour in Syria after the war comes to an end, which could happen sooner rather than later depending on which directions the political winds go in light of the American-Russian summit.
In all probability, the war in Syria is winding down, particularly after the Syrian Army entered the southern city of Daraa and hoisted the Syrian flag on government buildings.
It was a highly significant as well as symbolic move in the context of the eight-year long war that has raged across Syria, a war that has seen Iran’s role and military presence grow by leaps and bounds.
And if by sheer coincidence, another guest was in town during Netanyahu’s stay in Moscow.
The guest was no one else but Ali Akbar Vilayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Vilayati stressed in the Russian capital that his country’s relationship with Russia is strategic.
Prior to his departure for Moscow, the Israeli prime minister talked about Israel’s priorities in Syria for years to come.
The first one is that Iranian and Hizbullah forces be distanced from the border with Israel.
The second relates to the removal of Iranian long-range missiles from Syria (it was the first time that Netanyahu speaks publicly about such Iranian weapon systems in Syria).
The third priority was a bit unexpected from the Israelis who have been deliberately massacring the Palestinians, be it in Gaza or in the West Bank since Israel has come into being. Netanyahu said that Israel does not want people being “slaughtered” — his term — in the buffer zone between Syria and Israel.
The Israeli leader said that the Russians have distanced Iran dozens of kilometres from the Israeli border with Syria. It should be noted that there were no Iranian advisers or units from pro-Iranian militias operating in Syria or advancing with Syrian troops in the south of Syria.
The Iranians are very shrewd people when it comes to their political moves across the regional chessboard.
Of all things, I doubt that they are in a situation where they could afford a military confrontation with Israel, that is fully backed by the Trump administration when it comes to dealing with Iran.
The presence of a senior foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader in Moscow at the same time Netanyahu was visiting the Russian capital, could not be a coincidence.
The two main Middle Eastern enemies present in the same capital city, simultaneously, could only be the result of advance preparations and coordination by the Russians, with the full knowledge of both parties.
Surely, Russia has proven that it is the only power that has the diplomatic clout and the trust of the Iranians and the Israelis, a position that enabled Russian diplomacy to bring the Iranians to heel while keeping the Israelis calm and assured of the future policies of Iran in Syria.
Needless to say, the high stakes meetings in Moscow last Wednesday, 11 July, clarified the positions of Israel and Iran as to their respective red lines in Syria, and was an opportunity for Russia to exercise its influence on the Middle East.
In fact, if there has been a constant in Syria in the last three years, it is the fact that Russia has been a buffer between all the regional powers elbowing each other for influence in Syria. This sheer fact would be an important card to play at the Helsinki summit.
Strangely and unexpectedly enough, US Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) and a leading member on the Senate Armed Services Committee tweeted the following “friendly warning” to the Israelis one day after Netanyahu had met with President Putin in Moscow: “To our friends in Israel — be very careful making agreements with Russia re Syria that affect US interests.
“I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria. US must maintain presence in Syria to ensure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Russia/Iran influence.”
The tweet was a gentle American reminder to the Israelis that the United States expects Israel to coordinate its moves in the Middle East with Washington and not at the expense of American interests in the medium and long-term, particularly in Syria.
The Israeli reassuring answer was not late in coming. On the same day of the senator’s tweet, Netanyahu told news reporters that Israel is completely coordinating with the United States regarding the situation in Syria.
The Helsinki summit will definitely shed more light on the positions of the two superpowers regarding Syria.
The diplomatic coincidence in Moscow on Wednesday, 11 July, was in anticipation of this summit, that could be a determining factor in the way things will go in the Middle East for decades to come, and the roles and red lines assigned to the allies and strategic partners of both the United States and Russia in the region, including Syria.
The beneficiaries could be, against all odds, Iran and Israel. And the Arabs are conspicuous with their absence in this respect. They were not invited to Moscow on 11 July.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Diplomatic coincidence?