A groundbreaking event for the Middle East takes place in Jerusalem towards the end of June: The national security advisers of the United States, Russia and Israel, John Bolton, Nikolay Patrushev and Meir Ben-Shabbat, have scheduled their first ever conference for shaping a joint security strategy for Syria and against Iran’s role there. The event has stirred some attempts to sway its endgame. Russian media, in particular, flew a couple of kites: The dry Kremlin communiques usually run without comment by the state-run Russian-language RIA News agency on Moscow’s military and strategic moves in the Middle East, made way on June 3 to this remark: “The US and Israel intend to offer Russia recognition of the legitimacy of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the lifting of sanctions against the Syrian authorities at a trilateral meeting in Jerusalem – if Moscow agrees to restrain Iranian influence in the country.”
Other publications, some in the West, ran the story with an embellishment: The US and Israel was said to have agreed to this arrangement, provided that Russian publicly announced that Iranian and Shiite militia forces, including, Hizballah, would leave Syria.
However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, both the Kremlin and the White House have their own less high-flown expectations of their first public venture into overt trilateral diplomacy in Jerusalem
Vladimir Putin will be testing how far President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are ready to reimburse him for the latitude he gives US and Israeli operations in Syria. He would like the forum to become permanent and provide him with a stable channel for communicating with Trump outside the Washington establishment and its political pressure cooker.
What Trump seeks from the encounter is the expansion of the existing tacit understandings between the US, Russia and Israel in Syria. He wants Putin to revive the old division which split areas of influence between the US in the northeast up to the Euphrates River and the Russians in the West. For now, Russia gives free rein to Israeli military operations against Iranian and Hizballah targets. For the future, Trump and Netanyahu will table a request at the Jerusalem meeting for this area to be expanded southward to the Syrian districts bordering on Israel and Jordan.
Bolton and Ben-Shabbat will no doubt remind their Russian colleague that just a year ago, the US and Israel agreed to turn a blind eye to the massive military support the Russians extended for the Syrian government’s recovery from rebel hands of those same border districts, even though it meant uprooting Syrian rebel forces which had been supported directly with training, funds and arms by the US, Israel and Jordan. Their condition was that Russia ascertain that the region reoccupied by the Syrian army be cleansed of Iranian, Hizballah and other allied presence.
For most of the year, Moscow fell down on this obligation. Iranian and Hizballah troops stayed put disguised in Syrian army uniforms and insignia. But in the past few weeks, Moscow has gone to the opposite extreme: Russian “military police” – most of them members of Chechen special forces units – have been pushing Iranian and Hizballah forces out of their southern emplacements, including the Syrian-Iraqi borderland. Their numbers have consequently shrunk to no more than 800 Iranian officers and men and around 300 Hizballah. The Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias imported by Iran have been pulled out because Tehran was left by US sanctions without enough money to pay them.
The Russians had by this week managed to push Iranian and Hizballah forces past the main Daraa-Damascus highway. The remainder were scattered in as many as 30 isolated points in small groups of less than 30 fighting men. They were also forced to abandon their footholds in the key southern towns of Daraa on the Jordanian border and Quneitra opposite the Israeli Golan.
The finishing touch was applied by Israel in what the Syrians described as “massive missile strikes” on Wednesday, June 12, to destroy Iranian positions located strategically on the Tel Al-Harrah hilltop in the Daraa province and Hizballah observation posts facing Israel near Quneitra.
Tel Al-Harrah is the highest point in southern Syria. From an elevation of 1,600 meters, the panorama spreads out below into central and southern Lebanon and encompasses the Israeli Golan as well as its northern and central regions. Iranian tacticians used this vantage point for planting radar systems and Hizballah’s observation and intelligence-gathering posts. Israeli missiles, by destroying these essential military assets, left Iranian and Hizballah forces in southern and central Syria blind and vulnerable to further Israeli air and missile attack. The Israeli operation was staged in good time for factoring into the discussions coming up between John Bolton, Nikolay Patrushev and Meir Ben-Shabbat on their next steps in Syria. Agreements if reached may provide the frame for the Trump-Putin talks on Syria when they meet at the coming G-20 summit in Japan later this month.