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The Israel-Russia-Syria deal: Cost, beneficiaries and future deals

As Israel and Syria conclude a deal on the return of an Israeli woman from Syria, questions arise regarding the cost and what the future of such transactions with Russian mediation should be.
This picture taken from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on February 4, 2021, shows the border fence with the Syrian governorate of Quneitra. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week Israel concluded a deal with Syria, via Russia, to return an Israeli woman who crossed the border to Syria earlier this month. In exchange, Israel returned two Syrian shepherds who crossed into Israel this month and agreed on the early release of a Golan Heights woman who had been convicted of incitement. However, all the above was the less controversial part of the deal. It was later revealed by the media (and at first censored by Israel while officially denied by Syria) that Russia received more than US $1 million from Israel to finance the delivery of Russian COVID-19 vaccines to Syria. 

Russia's vaccine, Sputnik V, bears symbolic, political and economic significance. As a result of the prestige of having been the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved in the world, the economic gains involved and for other reasons, Sputnik V is providing new global leverage for Russia in a world desperate for solutions to the pandemic. This is particularly significant because Russia's current economic condition does not allow Moscow to throw money around easily. Therefore, Russia often uses what is known as "technical-military cooperation," that is, selling defense products or providing other military assistance such as advisers to increase its international presence. The vaccine provides meaningful soft power leverage that is perceived far more favorably by the international community than military outreach. While Russia's military cooperation is mostly restricted to non-Western countries, the vaccine is gradually attracting the interest of leading Western countries such as Germany (Germany's use of Sputnik V, however, depends on the vaccine’s approval by the relevant European regulatory authority). 

If media reports about the deal are accurate, the deal culminated in a positive result for the three parties involved, yet Russia emerged as the winner. First, it managed to free an Israeli woman and successfully broker a deal between regional foes, which solidifies its position as a major player and intermediary in the Middle East. Furthermore, it managed to negotiate an agreement between an American ally, Israel, and the sanctioned, pariah Syria. In practice, the agreement demonstrates Russia's good connections with conflicting parties in the region, Israel and Syria, and reflects the success of its strategy of maintaining good relations with all parties to a conflict. Symbolically, this deal is not in the spirit of the latest American sanctions, based on the 2019 Caesar Act, that restrict international parties from conducting transactions or striking agreements with the Syrian regime. Israel appears to have done exactly that, although in the name of a humanitarian cause. Furthermore, it was conducted through another target of US sanctions — Russia — that is severely criticized by the United States and the West for its human rights practices and malign subversive involvement in the affairs of other states through cyberattacks and other means.

The new American administration didn't comment on the deal, at least not publicly. This might reflect Syria's low priority on the Biden administration's agenda. The muted American response could also suggest that other US allies in the Middle East can coordinate with Russia on humanitarian issues (a broadly interpreted term) in Syria without criticism or repercussions from the US administration.

From an Israeli perspective, the reported covert deal of payment for vaccines was referred to by many critics and much of the Israeli media as Syrian/Russian extortion. Accordingly, its leakage to the media embarrassed the Israeli government and drew public discontent in some Israeli circles. Many questioned the reasoning behind Israeli willingness to pay for vaccinations destined for an enemy state and attributed the motivations behind the deal to electoral and not national considerations (general elections are to take place in Israel next month). In addition, the Israeli government was criticized for its inability, in the context of vaccine diplomacy, to conclude the ongoing effort to bring back two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas in Gaza. Others criticized the deal because it is likely to set a precedent and the starting point for future negotiations of this kind.

However, all options considered, the deal seems to be less costly for Israel in terms of public support, especially during an election period. Israelis traditionally support doing whatever necessary to "bring the boys back home," whether live soldiers or the bodies of warriors held by the enemy. This approach is rooted in Judaism and Israeli national-communal sentiment of mutual responsibility. The Israeli/Russian/Syrian deal seems more reasonable than a trade involving the release of numerous Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, as has happened in previous exchanges of this kind. In the past, thousands of prisoners, including some with blood on their hands, were released in exchange for even a single Israeli hostage. This drew considerable criticism from the Israeli public (which simultaneously celebrated the return of the hostage). In this respect, the deal stresses Russia's and Syria's pragmatic approach (which was rewarded), as opposed to the stalemate with Hamas in Gaza. Hamas still presents excessive demands in the spirit of previous agreements mentioned above, yet the Israeli public is less and less willing to accept disproportionate deals.

The current deal with Syria was described by official Israeli spokesmen as humanitarian, and followed two other such deals with Russian involvement. The was the 2019 return of the remains of an Israeli soldier from Syria, which the Russians obtained while risking their soldiers' lives. Second was the release of an Israeli woman detained in Russia following allegations of drug trafficking. However, unlike these two previous cases, where nothing was known officially to have been given to Russia directly for its humanitarian assistance, the current Russian gesture came with a price tag. It is reasonable to assume that previous Russian involvement was not free either and may have involved expectations from the Russian side for constructive Israeli assistance, perhaps with regard to Washington. In case such expectations have not been met, it is realistic to assume Russia demanded an immediate, concrete compensation for its efforts.

Russia seems keen to assume the position of an intermediary between Israel and Syria. A Russian TV channel just aired a new documentary apparently showing Eli Cohen, a legendary Israeli spy who was hanged in Syria in 1965 and whose remains are still in Syria. The documentary was shot by the Russian military attache in Syria at the time. Notably, it was released just days after the deal that brought the Israeli woman back from Syria.

For Israel, the recent deal is the latest example of the strategic and tactical benefits of the continued coordination in the Syrian arena with Russia that demonstrated Moscow's readiness to act constructively, although not for free. The question that follows — assuming Russia is willing and able to advance the strategic interests of Israel (and its allies in the Middle East) in Syria — is what the cost would be to limit Iranian military expansion and arms smuggling there.

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