The Kremlin pointedly disclosed Saturday, June 8, that President Vladimir Putin had talked by phone to Binyamin Netanyahu Friday on the Syrian question. It was their third conversation in a month. In his first call on May 6, Putin administered a dressing down to Netanyahu who was visiting Shanghai on Israel’s air strike against Damascus the day before. On June 14th, the prime minister flew to Sochi for an abortive attempt to dissuade the Russian president from consigning advanced S-300 missiles to the Syrian army.
There was no comment from Jerusalem on this latest conversation. However, the frequent communications between the Russian and Israeli leaders speak volumes about who calls the shots for the Syrian war arena - and the wider Middle East as well - since the Obama administration opted out. It also demonstrated that Putin is not giving up on the deployment of Russian troops on the Golan, despite the UN veto on their stepping into the shoes of the departing 377 Austrian members of the UN force policing the Golan separation zone between Israel and Syria.
Hoping to circumvent this veto, Putin turned for clearance directly to Jerusalem, one of the two parties to the 1974 disengagement agreement. No details of their conversation have been released.
The Russian president knew perfectly well that Israel and most likely the UN would bar his offer of Russian troops for the Golan force on legal grounds: The 1974 ceasefire accord precludes the five, veto-wielding UN Secretary Council permanent members from serving with the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). He put the offer forward nonetheless for two reasons:
1. As a reminder to the US and Chinese Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping, holding their first face to face in California, that neither of them controlled the state of play over embattled Syria and that Russia held the whip hand by virtue of its leadership of the Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi-Hizballah alliance.
2. As the groundwork for his next moves for deploying Russian troops on the Syrian Golan. Next time, he won’t ask the US, the UN or Israel for permission. He will go straight to his ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, and advise him of the importance of deploying Russian soldiers to the Golan – on the same footing as the US military deployment in Jordan. Placing the unit just outside the Golan separation zone would save Moscow having to turn to the UN or Israel first.
Is the stage being set?
A top adviser to President Bashar Assad accused Israel of directing the rebels in their brief takeover of the Golan Heights border town of Quneitra Thursday, suggesting that IDF troops may have been fighting undercover in Syria.
Assad has repeatedly sought to misrepresent the civil war as a terrorist offensive, led by outsiders including Israel, against his regime and his country. Israel has firmly rejected such claims in the past, with politicians and military chiefs repeating that Israel has no desire to become involved in the conflict, but seeks to protect Israel from the dangers it presents, such as fighting spilling over the border, and sophisticated weaponry being used against it or falling into rogue and dangerous hands.