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Did Israel nix Russian deal on Iran-backed forces in Syria?

Putin intensifies diplomacy with Israel and Turkey, as Iran adjusts its Syria policy after Helsinki; Damascus and Syrian Kurds keep talking; Al-Monitor breaks story on costs of US Embassy in Jerusalem.
A Syrian boy holds the Iranian flag as a truck carrying aid provided by Iran arrives in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor on September 20, 2017 while Syrian government forces continue to press forward with Russian air cover in the offensive against Islamic State group jihadists across the province.
Two separate offensives are under way against the jihadists in the area -- one by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the other by Russian-backed government forces. The Syrian army now controls around 70 percent

Liberman’s surprise "no" to Russian offer on Hezbollah

Russian President Vladimir Putin intensified his already frantic diplomatic pace on Syria, his own version of the art of the deal, following the Helsinki summit, as we wrote here last week.

“A high-level Russian delegation landed in Israel July 23,” Ben Caspit reports. “The delegation was headed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and included Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who was paying his first visit to Israel. It was a rushed — almost an emergency — visit after Putin’s last meeting with Netanyahu in Moscow on July 11. … It was later learned that the Russians offered Israel a deal, which they promised to enforce. They would guarantee that Iranian forces, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias would be kept 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Syrian border with Israel, while Israel would commit to accepting Assad’s return to power in Syria and stop its attacks on Syrian territory. Surprisingly, Israel said no. It was a polite but firm refusal. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot told the Russians that Israel could not accept an Iranian or Hezbollah presence anywhere in Syria, and that it reserves the right to continue dealing with that presence themselves. The Russians listened carefully and returned home empty-handed."

“The day after the Russians were gone, Israeli Patriot missiles shot down a Syrian air force Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet that penetrated 2 kilometers into Israeli territory,” writes Caspit. “It happened a day after two missiles fired by Assad’s forces set off Israel’s multilayered missile defense system, the ‘Magic Wand’ (or ‘David’s Sling’), for the first time. This was the first operational test of the missile interception system, and it failed. Regardless, the Russians protested the shooting down of the Sukhoi. An investigation by Israel later found that the Syrian pilot and navigator made a navigation error and did not intend to attack Israel. Nevertheless, the most senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials made it clear to their Russian counterparts that Israel had no choice, and that any aircraft that crosses its border will be shot down.”

“Tensions between Israel and Russia have been escalating over the past few weeks as a result of the intense attacks against Iranian targets in Syrian territory, which are attributed to Israel,” Caspit continues. “Similarly, the IDF’s nighttime operation July 22 to evacuate hundreds of White Helmets from southern Syria to Jordan — from where they will be relocated to the West — did not make Russia very happy. Shortly after the dramatic evacuation effort, the Russian Embassy in Israel tweeted a cynical barb critical of the Israeli operation. This forced Netanyahu himself to announce personally that Israel evacuated the White Helmets — a group that Putin and Assad both regard as a strategic enemy dedicated to toppling the Assad regime — and that it did this in response to an explicit request from Trump and countries such as France. What Netanyahu was actually insinuating to Putin was that he had no choice and it was not an Israeli initiative.”

Commenting on Israel’s evacuation of the White Helmets, Akiva Eldar writes, “As the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and their allied militias advance toward the Golan, based on new understandings reached with Russia, they will be looking first for collaborators with Israel. According to a June 18 Wall Street Journal report, for years, Israel has been regularly funneling cash to anti-government rebels in the border area to create and maintain a buffer zone populated by friendly forces. Syrian fighters told the paper that the IDF funds their wages and the purchase of weapons and ammunition. While serving as defense minister (2015), Moshe Ya'alon confirmed that in return for Israeli humanitarian aid, the rebels kept radical anti-Israel militias like Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra away from the border. … To repeat, evacuation is called for, not rescuing activists and providing humanitarian aid, though admirable. Taking in refugees from Syria, including those who have stood by Israel's side in recent years, is the very least the nation-state of a persecuted people owes itself.”

Iran’s post-Helsinki pivot

Hamidreza Azizi points out that Putin’s diplomacy has compelled Iran to adjust its approach to maintain its role in Syria. “With the prospect of US-Russia collaboration ahead — as indicated by Trump and Putin — and as Israeli airstrikes in Syria continue, Iran appears to have devised a dual-aspect precautionary strategy to preserve its interests in Syria. The Islamic Republic believes that although Russia is neither able nor willing to expel it from Syria for now, possible political pressure on Assad as collateral damage of a US-Russian agreement together with Israel’s military pressures may change the viewpoint of the Syrian government toward cooperation with Iran. As such, by sending special envoys to Moscow and Damascus, Iran is seeking to keep Russia committed to its partnership while also moving to prevent Assad from giving in to the pressures.”

Syrian government and PYD open to expanded talks

Mohammad Bassiki reports that “signs indicate that there is rapprochement between Damascus and the opposition's political and military components in northern and eastern Syria (east of the Euphrates River), where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are in control.”

Readers of Al-Monitor have been following this trend for at least the past year, including the mediation efforts of Russia and Iran to broker a deal between the Syrian government and the Kurds. We wrote in August 2017, “Turkey’s preoccupation with beating back Syrian Kurdish control in northern Syria could open the door to some type of accommodation with Damascus.” 

Assad said May 31, “We started opening doors for negotiations [with the SDF] because the majority of them are Syrians — and supposedly they like their country; they don’t like being puppets to any foreigners. That’s what we suppose.”

Bassiki writes, “At its third conference in Tabqa city in the northern province of Raqqa on July 16, the Syrian Democratic Council announced the establishment of a comprehensive platform labeled the ‘Democratic Autonomous Administrations.' The platform will represent the autonomous administrations of the SDF-controlled areas in potential future talks with the Syrian regime.”

Contacts between Damascus and local Syrian Kurdish authorities are already taking place. “On July 13, a co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, Ilham Ahmed, told the local Hawar news agency that there are talks between the local council of SDF-controlled Tabqa and the regime to improve services and to restore the regime’s powers over the Tabqa dam,” adds Bassiki. “On the sidelines of the Syrian Democratic Council conference, former [Democratic Union Party] PYD co-chair Salih Muslim stressed July 16 ‘a willingness to negotiate with the Syrian government, provided that there is an international guarantor to implement the results of the agreement between the parties.’"

It is no surprise then that “Turkey is preoccupied by the low-profile talks between the Kurdish [PYD] and Damascus that may result in the PYD maintaining its power in northern Syria,” as Kirill Semenov reports, and that this trend was the topic of a side conversation between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 26.

Turkey considers the PYD a terrorist group because of its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“A source in the Turkish Foreign Ministry who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said that during the meeting with Putin, Erdogan drew Putin’s attention to the need to inform him of such contacts with Kurdish representatives and to coordinate any moves on the Kurdish issues in Syria with Turkey as a guarantor state,” writes Semenov. “The PYD is also allegedly discussing with Damascus the possibility of opening its branch offices in other Syrian regions and integrating its fighters into the regime forces. To make matters for Ankara worse, the PYD appears to be prepared to join the Syrian state army in a possible regime offensive on Idlib. In return, the Kurds expect Damascus to return control over Afrin and Manbij — the two areas the Kurds conceded to Turkish forces. PYD representatives have maintained a presence in the area. The Tel Rifaat region, which still hosts some PYD units, is under protection by the regime and allied Russian forces and is seen in Turkey as a potential foothold for a joint Kurdish-Syrian army offensive against the groups that are under Turkey’s patronage.”

“That said,” Semenov continues, “Moscow fully realizes that without diplomatic preparation, the military offensive in Idlib runs serious risks. With all its desire to end the Syrian conflict, Russia remains interested in continuing bilateral cooperation with Turkey that goes far beyond the Syrian settlement. Thus, it can be presumed that Putin was more flexible on Erdogan’s requests and is open to work toward decreasing tensions over Idlib.”

Putin is intent on coordinating each step with and through Ankara and Tehran, his Astana partners. Maxim Suchkov adds that “another track Putin mentioned in Helsinki that Russia was open to pursuing is coordination of the Astana process and ‘small group’ activities. While it’s not clear whether the latter is ready for such engagement, representatives of the former are scheduled to meet in Sochi July 30-31 to discuss the issue of refugees. In parallel, a new meeting between the heads of Russia, Iran and Turkey is also being prepared. Putin’s foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov said the exact date has not been set as of yet, but diplomatic sources have it the trilateral summit will most likely occur at the end of the summer or in early fall. This will be the third meeting between Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Previously, the trio met first in Sochi in November 2017 and then in Ankara this past April.”

Al-Monitor breaks story on costs of US Embassy in Jerusalem

Bryant Harris was the first to report on July 12 that the price of the US Embassy in Jerusalem exceeded, by a multiple of more than a hundred, the $250,000 US President Donald Trump had claimed the move would cost.

“Documents uploaded this week to the official database of federal spending show that Maryland-based joint venture Desbuild Limak D&K has been awarded a $21.2 million award to design and build ‘addition and compound security upgrades’ to the embassy in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood. That’s in addition to the $335,000 spent to get the facility, formerly a US consulate, ready for its ritzy grand opening as an embassy back in May,” Harris writes.

This story was picked up by other media outlets days later, but you read it here in Al-Monitor first.

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