All stakeholders in the region are trying to re-reposition themselves to prepare for the expected Russian plan, anticipating an agreement to end the war in Syria. This is indeed an important period in terms of the re-arrangements on the ground situation. We do not know if it is for better or worse.
One of the most important developments is that Israel now got involved in it, and I wrote about this few days ago. Even if they do not overtly appear on the scene, the Israelis are key players in their so-called security zones, i.e. their neighboring countries.
We want to know what happened in Moscow. According to both Russia and Israel, Syria was the main headline in the meetings that were held between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu is not against internal agreement between Syrian fighting parties, under the Russia plan, which stipulates that Bashar al-Assad stays and the opposition gets limited powers. This is the best solution for Israel: a weak regime and an exhausted opposition.
Sources said that Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to obtain a promise from his friend Putin about “undermining” the Iranian presence as well as Hezbollah and the rest of the pro-Iranian militias in Syria. “Undermining” most probably means in this context, to impose a peace agreement forced on them to get out of Syria.
According to sources, the shocking reply of Putin was as follow: Moscow cannot show its arrangements with Israel to undermine the Iranian presence and influence in Syria at the moment, because Moscow considers that it still needs the Iranian presence in Syria “until the end of the war with ISIS and reaching a political solution there.”
We are not assuming that Israel will eliminate Hezbollah from Lebanon but it will work to undermine it even though Hezbollah is strong enough to resistAbdulrahman al-Rashed
However, we know that promises in such uncertain times cannot be reliable, and often do not get fulfilled. Moscow has promised to reduce the presence of Iran and its allies later on, but the realization of such a promise requires explicit international guarantees.
The Syrian forces entered Lebanon in 1976 under the pretext of stopping the war there. It withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 after assassinating a large number of Lebanese leaders, including Rafik Hariri. Syria’s occupation in Lebanon lasted for almost three decades and Tehran might occupy Syria for a long time.
The source also stated that Moscow assumes that Israel will accept the Russian proposal because Russia had previously helped Israel by providing intelligence data to carry out strikes targeting Hezbollah in Syria as a good intention initiative from Russia to Israel. This supports the story stating that Russians gave Israel information that Mughniyeh was near Kenaytra so it can assassinate him.
It seems that Moscow gave Israel one option: the acceptance of the Iranian presence in Syria because it either needs it or cannot face it. The source mentions that Moscow does not mind if Israel wanted to weaken Hezbollah’s role in Syria, allowing Israel to target Hezbollah in Lebanon.
We are not assuming that Israel will eliminate Hezbollah from Lebanon but it will work to undermine it even though Hezbollah is strong enough to resist. Russians believe that a major attack will force Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria and focus on the possible Israeli attack in Lebanon.
This explains the return of Israeli threats against Hezbollah in Lebanon; Israel wants to drain Hezbollah missiles’ force in a war controlled by Israel. According to Russian and Israeli opinions, this will weaken the presence of Iranians in Damascus.
In my opinion, the Syrian project based on external wars will lead to more tension while expanding the circle of turbulence. Without forcing Iran and its allies to get out of Syria as a condition for ending the war, the situation in Syria will remain as is.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on March 17, 2017.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.