Photo: Reuters/Sergei Ilnitsky
Photo: Reuters/Sergei Ilnitsky

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday, for the second time in two months, with speculation that a “grand bargain” on Syria is in the works.

As was the case when Netanyahu last visited Moscow, the trip coincides with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, which the Bashar al-Assad government described as “Israeli aggression,” thwarted by Syrian air defense systems.

Netanyahu received a warm welcome in Moscow during his last visit, even while Israeli airstrikes in Syria were underway. Analysis following his meeting with Putin, including from Asia Times, concluded that Moscow had likely given tacit approval to Israel to attack Iranian assets in Syria.

“What can be learned from these developments?” Shaiel Ben-Ephraim wrote for Asia Times in May. “The Russians appear to understand that Israel cannot tolerate direct Iranian attacks on its territory. It is also willing to accept a de facto Israeli security zone of undetermined depth extending from the Golan Heights eastward.”

But since then, progress in creating such a security zone has been slow.

“Russia has told Israel on several occasions that it can’t make Iran leave Syria completely; the most it can do is try to get Iranian forces and Iranian-affiliated militias, including Hezbollah, to move a significant distance away from the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights,” Israel’s Haaretz said in an analysis piece on Tuesday. “But Russia isn’t even managing to keep its promise to secure a partial withdrawal of Iranian forces,” the article went on.

It is not just Israel that is pushing for a deal to diminish Iran’s footprint in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also angling for an agreement with Putin, according to an article on Monday in the New Yorker. For the grand bargain to work, the Trump administration would have to end US sanctions on Moscow.

The basic premise of the deal would be “trading Ukraine for Syria,” one US official cited in the New Yorker piece said, referencing a proposal from an Israeli minister. Sanctions that were placed on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea would be dropped, in exchange for a more concerted effort on the part of Moscow to cooperate in Syria.

US President Donald Trump is set to hold his first official summit with his Russian counterpart on Monday. Trump has consistently signaled a desire to forge stronger ties with Moscow and, as recently as during the G7 meeting held in Canada last month, he expressed support for Russia rejoining the group. As was the case with the sanctions in question, Russia was kicked out in response to the annexation of Crimea.

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