It would be a mistake to take it for granted that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s talks with President Donald Trump in Washington early next month will be plain sailing or produce an automatic shower of benefits for the Jewish state. It is understood in Jerusalem that a new order is unfolding close to Israel’s borders, which is not yet fully in the sights of its government, military and intelligence leaders. This process is going forward at dizzying speed in Syria, currently the central Middle East arena, where Presidents Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan have agreed to cooperate.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May picked up fast on the new power equation. After standing before the media with the US President Friday, Jan. 27, and declaring hopefully, “Britain and the US can once again lead the world together,” she decided to fly straight from Washington to Ankara Saturday, before returning home.
The outcome of her first meeting with President Erdogan was one of the fastest defense collaboration pacts ever negotiated for trade and the war on terror. The British leader lost no time in getting down to brass tacks on how British military and intelligence can be integrated in the joint US-Russian-Turkish military steps for Syria. Erdogan did not exactly receive her with open arms. He did not afford his visitor the courtesy of placing a British flag in the reception room in his palace.
Israel is in much the same position. Israel stayed out of military involvement in the Syrian civil war, according to a policy led by Netanyahu, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and OC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Avivi Kochavi (then Direct of Military Intelligence). This policy has left Israel out of today’s decision-making loop on Syria’s future.
Towards the end of 2015, shortly after Russia embarked on its massive military intervention in the Syrian conflict, Netanyahu took steps for safeguarding Israel’s security interests by setting up a direct line with the Russian president. It was translated into a military coordination mechanism between the Russian air force command in Syria and the Israeli air force, with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff, and
Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, Israel’s Deputy Chief of Staff, in charge of this direct military link.
Any problems that could not be solved at the military level were promptly turned over to be addressed at meetings or in phone calls between Netanyahu and Putin.
In one example, the prime minister obtained an undertaking from the Russian president to keep Iranian forces and Iran’s Shiite surrogates, including the Lebanese Hizballah, away from the Syrian-Israeli border, or allow them to use borderlands to send terrorists into Israel.
Shortly after Trump’s election victory (Nov. 8, 2016), the spadework on his collaboration with Putin was quietly begun by their national security advisers, Michael Flynn, in New York and Nikiolai Platonovich Patrushev in Moscow.
Jerusalem knew what was going on, but was taken aback by the speed at which those close understandings ripened into US-Russian deals on the ground. Before Trump had finished his first week in the White House, US warplanes had escorted a Russian air strike against ISIS in Syria.
This rush of events injects further urgency into Netanyahu forthcoming talks with the US president. Whereas in the second term of the Obama presidency, the Israeli leader was wont to travel to Moscow or Sochi to sort out security problems relating to Syria, henceforth he must directly engage Donald Trump as the lead player.
So when the Israeli premier travels to the White House next month, he will have to address four pressing concerns, all relating to the fast-moving Syrian scene:
1. Will Washington and Moscow go through with the expulsion from Syria of Iranian forces and their proxies, including Hizballah – and take it all the way until it is accomplished?
2. After they are gone, who will take over the areas they evacuate?
3. Will Bashar Assad stay on as president, or has his successor been nominated?
4. The most burning question of all is the level of Hizballah’s armament. Not only must Hizballah forces be pushed out of Syria, but it is essential to strip them of their sophisticated new weaponry, including missiles. Israel’s military and security chiefs assess Hizballah’s arsenal as having been upgraded in recent weeks to a level that directly impinges on Israel’s security.