Even as Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament and a prominent politician in the Kremlin circles, took off from Moscow on Tuesday heading a parliamentary delegation on a goodwill mission to Israel, the verve of the Russian-Israeli politico-military cooperation over Syria provided the political backdrop.
Amongst all the regional protagonists that Moscow grapples with in Syria, Israel stands on special footing – although the prevailing mistaken view could be that there is a Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi-Hezbollah axis in regional politics.
Moscow’s accommodation of Israel’s legitimate interests in Syria presents a study in contrast with its resolve to make a horrible example of Turkey for standing in the way of Pax Russiana in Syria. How does one explain Russia’s differentiation?
To begin with, Israel. In a departure statement in Moscow, Matviyenko described Russian-Israeli relations as on a steadily ascending curve. She said, “The fact is that relations between Russia and Israel are not burdened by any insurmountable problems, even more so conflicts … these relations develop in the line of ascent, no doubt.”
Interestingly, on the same day, in a rare briefing in Tel Aviv for the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defence committee, Israel’s ambassador to Moscow Zvi Heifetz took note that his country’s relations with Russia “are flourishing in an unprecedented manner.”
In the classified briefing, which, intriguingly, found its way to Haaretz newspaper, Heifetz was quoted as saying, “There is an open line between us and the Russians on every level. We made our red lines clear to the Russians regarding Syria and the involvement by Iran and the Hezbollah. When we have any concerns, we discuss them.”
Heifetz assessed that the Russian intervention stems from its own strategic interests. “The Russian view is that Assad creates stability, and therefore, they want to bolster him. Assad currently serves Russia’s interests, but not at any price.”
However, the punch line lay elsewhere. Heifetz disclosed that Moscow has assured Israel that it will not transfer any weapons to the Hezbollah forces fighting in Syria.
This assurance came in the wake of Syrian government forces and Hezbollah making territorial gains recently in the southern Syrian region bordering Golan Heights, which of course was possible thanks to Russian air cover.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly took note recently that Israel’s cooperation and coordination with Russia at the military-to-military level “works securely” and that it rests on mutual understanding at the political level. He said, “We acknowledge the fact of each other’s special interests and plan to do so that this coordination and absence of confrontation continue.”
Significantly, Matviyenko echoed the same opinion after her talks in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. She told TASS that she discussed with her Israeli counterpart the military cooperation between Russia and Israel over Syria and that Russia is content with the state of play.
To be sure, the picture changes dramatically when it comes to the Russian-Turkish tensions over Syria. Moscow is brow-beating Turkey. The brilliance of the Russian pressure tactic lies in taking care not to let it become a NATO issue. So far Moscow has kept a fine balance.
Both Turkey and Israel have legitimate concerns over the contours of a Syrian settlement and there is enough evidence of both having tried to turn the tide of the Syrian civil war in directions that suited them – which indeed involved pragmatic dealings with Islamist groups. From the Russian point of view, unlike Jordan or Iraq, Turkey and Israel have credible capability to intervene inside Syria. And both Turkey and Israel would have wished that Russia never intervened in Syria.
However, Israel chose to view the Russian intervention in practical terms once it assessed that there is a new reality next door that it needed to come to terms with. Turkey on the other hand held an ideological prism which put it in an antithetical position and precluded any serious effort to talk things over with Russia (which Moscow would have welcomed).
Whereas Israel went to great lengths to avoid skirmishes with Russian forces in Syria, Turkey acted belligerently by shooting down a Russian aircraft. The presence of the Shi’ite militia supported by Iran and the Hezbollah in the vicinity of the Golan Heights is no less serious a matter for Israel than the lengthening shadows of the Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
But Israel chose to work on the problem by levelling with the Russians so that a high degree of mutual understanding developed as to where the two sides’ real concerns lie, which are non-negotiable. Turkey refused to take such a route. All evidence shows that Russia exercised self-restraint vis-a-vis the Syrian Kurds (who still remain close to the US).
In all this, what principally distinguishes the Turkish approach is President Recep Erdogan’s personal agenda. Whereas Israel could handle the Syrian file exclusively in terms of national security interests, Erdogan’s personal interests transmuted the Turkish policies. He experienced once already the potential of the Syrian conflict to further his domestic political agenda.
If whipping up nationalism and xenophobia helped him secure an absolute majority for the ruling party in the second round of parliamentary elections, Erdogan feels tempted to pursue the same trajectory to obtain a favourable outcome in any forthcoming national referendum to push through his pet project of transforming Turkey as a presidential system to concentrate power in his hands and ensure that he remains the ruler for a lifetime.
Thus, while Israel could work out a mutual understanding with Russia despite the big impediment posed by the latter’s close alliance with Iran in the Syrian conflict, Turkey utterly failed to cash in on the common interest it would have with Iran over curbing Kurdish nationalism.
Looking ahead, the big question is whether Russia would act as a bridge at some point to calm the Iran-Israel tensions. While it may seem a preposterous idea, the fact remains that Tehran has not shown any zest in painting the town red over the capture of territories in southern Syria bordering the Golan by the forces of the ‘resistance.’
The restraint could be tactical in the face of the all-consuming struggle going on against the Islamic State; it could be an early sign of the priorities of “New Iran”; or, it could be that the Russians gave a quiet word of advice to the Iranians. Maybe, all these factors have been at work.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.
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