Russian president Vladimir Putin has buried the budding US-Russian-Israeli collaboration on Syria initiated at his Helsinki summit with President Donald Trump on July 16. The Russian leader pivoted sharply after his top guns, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and chief of staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, returned empty handed from a last-ditch effort on July 23 to win Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Russian compromise to move Iran and its proxies to a point 100km from the Israeli border. That acceptance was to have been the key to teaming up with Trump for resolving the Syrian crisis. It was also Putin’s last offer to Netanyahu before heading for the exit from Helsinki and any understandings reached there.
The Russian leader was ready to go after deciding he could attain his policy goals without Trump, who is being hammered at home by his political and intelligence foes over the Russian election meddling issue; or Netanyahu who, while hung up on Iran, has two volatile fronts on his hands. Therefore, when Lavrov and Gerasimov left Jerusalem, he told them to carry on to Paris and Berlin before heading for home, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report.
Their next mission, after failing in Jerusalem, was to win France and Germany over to the Kremlin’s next plans for Iran and Syria. Our sources reveal the high points of Putin’s revamped objectives:
- France and Germany would be persuaded to quit the US-led UN Geneva Conference for Syria and join the rival Russian Astana peace process. They were invited to the next Astana conference taking place in Sochi on July 30-31.
- Putin ditched the plan last raised by Trump at Helsinki to amalgamate the two Syria peace processes.
- Turkey and Iran will sit at the top table at Astana. If France and Germany go along, they will be given opportunities to reach understandings with Tehran and Ankara on additional issues.
- If they agree to pivot away from Washington, France and Germany will be asked to withdraw their forces from the US-led coalition in Syria. Our military sources note that France maintains air force and special operations troops in eastern Syria close to the border with Turkey, while German air force units are deployed at US bases in Syria.
- If this process matures, Russia and Syria will start organizing the repatriation to their former homes of an estimated million Syrian war refugees admitted to Germany and France. Another million received sanctuary in the UK.
- Moscow, Paris and Berlin would be asked to line up behind a joint demand to force Israel to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 242 (which calls for Israel’s withdrawal from territory captured in 1967) according to the most stringent pro-Palestinian interpretation embodied in the subsequent 1973 Resolution 338 for a ceasefire in the Yom Kippur War.
Putin is waiting for Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron to respond to his overtures, considering that their purpose is clearly to drive a wedge between the Trump administration and Europe’s leading powers. Jilting Israel and his special relations with Netanyahu are part and parcel of Putin’s new policy. Communications between Moscow and Jerusalem were accordingly downgraded to military-to-military coordination in Syria and liaison between national security advisers, Nikolaly Patrushev and Meir Ben Shabat.
It goes without saying that Moscow has rejected all of Netanyahu’s demands for the removal of Iran and Hizballah from Syria. The Russian leader acted under the strong influence of Israel’s military passivity in the Syrian arena. The sporadic air strikes were not enough. Had the Israeli army shown initiative and seriously gone to war against Iran and Hizballah in Syria, in line with the prime minister and defense minister’s bombast, Putin would not have been able to brush Israel aside as a factor in his calculations. And Iran and Syria might not have come out of the affair substantially strengthened and confident enough to challenge Israel in battle.