Putin Tries to Browbeat Netanyahu into Submission on S. Syria

When Alexander Levrentiev, Russia’s special envoy for Syria, visited Israel on Thursday, Dec. 24, he held an unannounced tête-à-tête with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to hand him a personal letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin, DEBKA Weekly’s political sources report exclusively.
The letter set forth four steps, or conditions, for Israel to follow, for understandings with Moscow to continue over Russia’s future political and military steps in Syria.
Those steps are revealed here for the first time:
1. Netanyahu must endorse the Russian policy of maintaining Bashar Assad in power as president of Syria for the foreseeable future.
2. The prime minister must articulate this endorsement publicly and repeatedly to ensure Washington’s attention.
3. Israel must halt aid to rebel organizations in southern Syria, including military assistance, food and medicines and treatment of their casualties at Israeli hospitals – in a word, sever all its ties with the rebel groups of southern Syria.
4. Israel will use its influence in Washington, including in the House and the Senate, to persuade Americans that Russia’s actions in Syria are compatible with Israel’s national security interests.
The Russian president’s demands did not land in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem like a bolt from the blue. Netanyahu was given the same message when they spoke on the phone on Dec. 22.
Neither leader disclosed the content of their conversation. A Kremlin communiqué stated only: “Vladimir Putin stressed that there is no alternative to the launch of intra-Syrian negotiations under UN auspices as well as the continued and uncompromising fight against Islamic State and other extremist groups.”
Netanyahu stayed silent in response to Putin’s demands then – and again this week, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report.
Seeing he was getting nowhere with the Israeli leader, Putin resorted to extreme action to break his silence.
Tuesday, Dec. 29, dozens of Russian bombers and warplanes were detached from operations in other parts of Syria to pummel rebel forces ranged in southern Syria along the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
Singled out for this brutal punishment were such moderate rebel groups as the Southern Front, an alliance backed by 70% of the rebel commands in southern Syria. The front, established in February 2014, receives assistance from the US-led Military Operations Center based in Jordan and in Israel.
Other targets included the First Army, which was set up in January 2015 in an effort to unify the rebels in southern Syria. This organization also receives aid from the US, Jordan and Israel.
The Russian blitz told Netanyahu that his silence was unacceptable to Putin. Either the Israeli premier agrees to play ball with Moscow on southern Syria, or else the Russian air force will beat Israel into submission by hammering its security interests dangerously close to its northern borders.
In any event, the Russian leader is engaged in double or triple games with the US, Iran and Israel, likely playing one off against the other in pursuit of his goals.
(See also a separate item in this issue about how Iran and Hizballah perceive Moscow’s tactics)

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