Israel, which for decades has managed to portray itself as victim rather than victorious, is in a very similar position to the more official anti-ISIS coalition members, including Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US. All of these countries have admitted or been caught red-handed training or providing material support for groups that invariably engage in terrorism. These include the supposedly secular Free Syrian Army, America’s early favorite, which employed suicide bombing from the start in late 2012.
In another post I may summarize the long list of links established between these terrorist groups and the coalition governments and their private fronts. For now I want to concentrate on this week’s events, which has seen this alliance, with its ever-more displaced proxies in Syria, shaken to its roots. By all indications, they have been outmaneuvered by the smaller armies, but more reasonable causes, of Syria, Hezbollah, Iran, and especially Russia.
Israel is among the most important US allies politely to make way before the Russian advance. They are not officially a coalition partner, but nevertheless the elephant in the room, the hidden player. By their constructed national identity, Israel must stand opposed to Islamic terrorism, but, like the major coalition members, is a documented supporter of Syrian rebels, invariably, or perhaps, inevitably, Salafist and takfiri terrorists.
Leading Israeli left-wing Ha’aretz reported, for instance, that Israeli hospitals in the Golan Heights were treating wounded fighters, including al-Nusra, and sending them back to the front. At the time of the mid-summer report, Israeli officials said the practice had stopped but justified it with old canards: ‘we didn’t know who they were!”, and when pressed, ‘the enemy of my enemy is Assad!’.
But this is policy, not exception, among the coalition members. Syrian de-stabilization is international in scope, even as it abrogates the most fundamental tenets of international law and common civilization. It is spelled out in its strategic specifics in a Brookings Institution paper by Michael O’Hanlon of June 2015 called “Deconstructing Syria.” It has long been Western and coalition policy, however, even though only recently is it becoming public knowledge.
Well, its time the neo-cons and Likudniks get back to the drawing board. They have drawn the short stick. It remains to be seen how the more reasonable factions in US, Israeli, and Turkish politics and military negotiate the evolving new relations between the great global powers. All three must now take a big step backwards, and a long, slow breath. Let us look further at what recently has transpired between Israel and Russia.
“Did Putin Just Clip Israel’s Wings?” asks Joshua Mitnick at the Christian Science Monitor. The article, which treats Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow, begins,” all the pleasantries Monday couldn’t hide the awkwardness of the new wrinkle in Russian-Israeli relations.” CSM highlighted Israeli concessions and Israeli reactions in the meeting between Putin and Netanyahu:
“In effect, Russia is dictating by saying, ‘Our soldiers, rockets, and aircraft are there. Don’t mess with us,’” says Moshe Maoz, an expert on Syria at Hebrew University. He sees the new dialogue with Russia as a strategic mistake for Israel.”
The outrage behind this complaint resembles that in Carly Fiorina’s tirade at the US Republican Party Debates. In their quadrennial “Who Can Be The Biggest Dick on the World Stage” contest, she finished with high marks. “I wouldn’t even talk to Putin!” she wailed. “I’d beef up the Sixth Fleet and he’d get the message.” Fuck yeah! So the conceptual shift from the American to the Israeli right wing is not a big one, since the common concepts are tiny concepts indeed. The American neo-conservative movement is richly indebted to AIPAC, as indeed, is practically every congressperson and US Senator, and the points of view of those who applauded Netanyahu’s US House-Crashing are difficult to distinguish from those of the Likud Party in Israel. They all now are in the early, angry stages of the grief process, and we should probably give them some space.
Netanyahu was upbraided in Moscow, by every indication. Accompanied by two high-ranking generals to emphasize the seriousness of the situation, Netanyahu went perhaps to peel off a few tidbits of information from Putin, no doubt unsuccessfully, or perhaps sway him from his foolish alliance with Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah. “Remember the 50’s, Big Guy?” the Israeli leader may have flashed lashes at Putin, and recalled to mind early romances in the kibbutz. Ah, but Putin is no socialist, he is not even a Soviet. The reverie dissolves….
As official comments and journalists indicate, Netanyahu met with the Russian leader primarily to express Israeli concerns that the ramped-up Russian presence near their borders would interfere with their own operations along and beyond these borders. They were especially concerned to present the case that Hezbollah presented a clear-and-present existential danger to the state of Israel, and that Russian assistance to Syria would buttress the fortunes of their sworn enemies Iran and Hezbollah. In particular, they fretted that arms provided to the Syrian army would fall into the hands of these ‘terrorists’ (as, for example, US and Israeli arms to the Free Syrian Army fall inexorably into the hands of al-Nusra and ISIS. Just like that, except that the Syrian Army is the legitimate army in its nation).
Israel insisted, and continues to insist, it has the right to continue attacking those threatening supply lines of Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force. Israel’s greatest concern, were the 28 reported new fighter jets and reports that Russia was installing advanced new S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. “ISIS has no air force!” Israel complains with alarm, clearly perceiving the challenge to their own aerial superiority over the Lebanese and Syrian haunts of Hezbollah, the only group Israel can really bring itself to call “terrorist.”
Putin patiently explained that the Hezbollah/Syrian/Iranian threat to Israel was a matter of perception. Putin assured the armed-to-the-teeth Israeli nation, that Hezbollah and the few Iranians in Syria have their hands full with ISIS right now and are hardly so stupid to open up another front. (On this occasion, he seems to have refrained from mentioning, at least publically, where these terrorist groups have been drawing their sustenance). Putin also seems to have refused to accept Israeli justifications for impositions onto Syrian sovereignty, such as the wish to institute a “no-fly” or a “buffer zone.”
The mainstream media and official accounts seem to suggest that very little went on in the Moscow meeting, which is factually true, but further, that the little that did go on was very productive. That too is a matter of perception. Everyone agreed that, as Netanyahu put it, he and Putin “agreed on a mechanism to prevent such (military-to-military) misunderstandings”. Beyond that, the subtleties of “tiny diplomacy” befuddle the observer and leave much to interpretation. As Reuters had it, the mission was a success, since ” Israel and Russia agreed on Monday to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire.”
It did not take long for that conclusion to get shot down, or reduced to something even tinier, by the same Israeli military source, Debkafiles, which two weeks earlier broached the embarrassing report we will be discussing below and in the next post. Debka makes clear the Israelis certainly did not agree to “coordinate” with the Russian military, but only to set up a hot-line for occasional emergency communication between the militaries.
Indeed, it seems possible to construe that Netanyahu did pretty well for himself by getting a “hotline” for communications, rather than military “coordination,” which, it turns out, Russia did not want either. Smell a fish? The US worked out this kind of deal with quickly-arranged meetings between the US Defense Minister and his Russian compatriot over the last week. If you are just giving your “hotline” number to the other side, why did Netanyahu need to go to Moscow himself and then bring along his top brass and intelligence officers? To get away from the Israeli heat?
The most recent report however, reputedly from a senior Israeli defense source, specifies the following:
“Israel and Russia have set up a joint military working group at a senior level to coordinate their activities in Syria regarding aerial, naval, and electromagnetic activity.” The working group is “headed by the deputy chiefs of staff of both countries.” So there you have it. Perhaps a tad more complex than what the Americans had to work out with Russia, but did that really need the whole gang traipsing off to Moscow?
At Thursdays Jewish New Year’s reception at Mossad headquarters, also the occasion of the spy agency’s 65th inaugural anniversary, Netanyahu somehow waxed bitter, grandiose and delusional. “‘No one makes alliances with the weak,” he said. “In the face of this changing world, Israel must be a power. Not just a regional power, but in some spheres, a world power.” Not like this is a new thought.
What made this so humiliating for Netanyahu, not before Russia and the world, but before his own generals, was that he had badly played his hand, and could have had a much better deal with Putin a month ago. In several recent publications, William Engdahl has shed light on Russia’s strategic pivots around US alliances, and this interesting turn of events in Russian-Israeli relations. It is not entirely clear what the full terms of the early Putin proposal would have been, and we are able to garner only those sides of the story that government and military officials wish to leak. But the general thrust is clear enough.
Much like Putin’s earlier Turkstream deal-making with Erdogan late last year, Netanyahu too seems to have been given an opening by Putin, indeed offered a pretty sizable carrot, reportedly at the end of August. Engdahl writes:
“According to the news site, DEBKA.file, said to be a conduit for Israeli military and Mossad intelligence, at the end of August Russia’s Putin proposed to Israel for Moscow to undertake responsibility for guarding Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields, along with the offer of a Russian investment of $7-10 billion for developing Leviathan, the largest well, and building a pipeline to Turkey for exporting the gas to Europe.”
What is missing in the Israeli account is the conditions Putin demanded of Israel. But the report continues to say that the perennial Israeli concern about Hezbollah is also addressed in Putin’s proposal, for “neither Syria nor Hizballah would dare attack” the Leviathan oil fields protected by their own Russia protectors. Debka frames the offer somewhat in terms of a threat. It interprets Russia to say “your oil fields will be vulnerable without our agreement, but we can protect them”. But if this is a protection racket, then it is an unusual one: Russia also offered billions of dollars of investment. That memory must sting now.
The following post will examine the conditions of the proffered deal, as elucidated by William Engdahl and Debkafiles, Netanyahu’s reasons for rejecting it, and the authors gleeful or grim conclusions about Israel’s reduced new role in the region, that has followed Netanyahu’s ill-advised decision.