A Syrian research centre said in a widely publicised report on 17 January that a meeting had taken place between Israeli and Syrian officials at the Hmeimim military base in Latakia in western Syria that is being used by Russia as an air base.
The report, published by the Jusoor Centre for Studies based in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, said that the meeting took place in December 2020 between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and an Israeli security official.
It was attended by Russian military and intelligence officers, Commander of the Russian Forces in Syria Alexander Tchaikov, Syria’s National Security Bureau Chief Ali Mamlouk and Syrian Special Adviser on Security and Strategic Affairs Bassam Hassan. Israel was represented by former army chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Mossad intelligence agency director Ari Ben-Menashe.
During the meeting, the Syrian delegation said it wanted to see Syria return to the Arab League, receive financial aid to help pay off Syria’s debts to Iran, which would open the door to expelling Iran from Syria, support for Al-Assad’s remaining in power, a restoration of Syria’s relations with the Arab Sunni axis, economic support for Syria, and the ending of the international sanctions against Syria and those put in place by the US Caesar Act, the report said.
The Israelis demanded the dismantling of the “axis of resistance and opposition” to its policies in the region, the full withdrawal of Iran from Syria, the expulsion of forces under the command of Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and other foreign militias from Syria, the formation of a new Syrian government in association with the Syrian opposition, the overhaul of Syria’s security and military institutions and the reinstatement of dissident Syrian officers with Russian-US-Israeli guarantees.
The report said that although the meeting did not conclude in specific agreements, it was the beginning of a track that Russia is strongly pushing for and will likely expand this year. Moscow believes that building a direct relationship between the Al-Assad regime and Tel Aviv will be a lifeline for the regime in obtaining global support for its plans for a political solution to the crisis in the country.
The Syrian regime later adamantly denied the report, breaking its habit of ignoring reports not published on official websites. Remaining silent could have put the regime in a difficult position with Iran or made it look as if Damascus had leaked the news.
Reports of the meeting were “lies promoted by hired media outlets,” it said, with a source at the Syrian Ministry of Foreign and Expatriate Affairs saying Syria adamantly denied the reports, describing them as attempts to “cast doubt on Syria’s steadfast positions” on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
Syria was “clear in its policies towards the Palestinian cause and the full liberation of the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights,” the source said.
However, Syrian businessman Firas Tlass, the son of a former Syrian defence minister, said the meeting, while it had not included Al-Assad, had been attended by Mamlouk who had met with Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen who is close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Tlass said meetings routinely take place between Israeli and Russian military officers, though these are not attended by Syrian regime officials.
Previous leaked reports have discussed meetings between the two sides, and there have been reports that an indirect offer by Israel was delivered to Al-Assad one month ago that included Israeli and US guarantees that Turkish forces would leave northern Syria and the northern Idlib province would return to full Syrian regime control.
The offer apparently also included the withdrawal of US forces from eastern Syria and the handing over of the whole East Euphrates region to the Syrian regime. There would be a return of Syria’s influence in Lebanon in return for a peace agreement with Syria without Israel’s withdrawing from the Occupied Golan Heights, it said.
Al-Assad would also commit himself to expelling Iranian and Hizbullah forces from Syria under the offered agreement.
The practice of offers, counter-offers and deals of various kinds has long been a feature of Al-Assad’s policies, and there may have been meetings of this kind taking place despite official denials.
In the wake of the reports of the Hmeimim meeting, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a television speech that Iran, not Russia, had prevented the collapse of the Al-Assad regime, seen as a way of reminding the Damascus regime that Tehran was its protector and that it could destabilise the country further should it wish to do so.
Also in the wake of the alleged Hmeimim meeting and Israeli airstrikes on Iranian militia bases in Deir Al-Zor in Syria, Tehran has begun talking about imposing a new defence treaty on the Syrian regime.
According to the Iranian Fars news agency, Deputy Chairman of Iran’s Islamic Shura Council Abul-Fadl Abu Turabi has said a draft “defence and security treaty for the resistance axis” is being prepared in Tehran.
This says that “if the usurping Zionist entity [Israel] attacks the land of any of the resistance countries signatory to this treaty, then all the parties to it are obliged to provide comprehensive economic, military and political support to ward off the danger,” Abu Turabi said.
The Israeli army has said it carried out more than 50 air strikes across Syria during 2020, mostly against Iranian military positions or camps or Hizbullah weapons depots, amid its repeated insistence that Iran will not be allowed to retain its foothold in Syria.
Making peace with Israel may be an ideal solution for the Syrian regime to the diplomatic and economic siege it has been under for almost a decade. Peace with the Syrian regime would also be attractive for Israel, since it believes the continuation of the Al-Assad regime would be better for its security, explaining Israel’s earlier actions in helping to prevent the collapse of the Al-Assad regime.
Tehran is worried that the Syrian regime could look to other solutions to the crisis in the country that have nothing to do with Iranian support. It understands that the relationship of the Al-Assad regime with Tehran is a purely pragmatic one, which is why it is determined to retain its influence in Syria.
Al-Assad believes he can take a step towards Israel while ignoring the lack of legitimacy of his regime in the eyes of much of the international community and demands by the US and Europe that progress towards a solution to the Syrian crisis must involve more than normalising relations with Israel.
But Israel knows that even if it succeeds in negotiating with the Al-Assad regime, there is no guarantee that an agreement with Damascus will not be void if the regime collapses and another one comes to power in Syria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.