After years of American hegemony, Russia has definitely re-asserted itself in the Middle East. Following five years of one of the worst civil wars in recent history, Syria may re-emerge as a functioning state in need of billions in development aid and allies to support reconstruction. Russia’s decision to back the Assad regime against all of the opposition forces tipped the scales. Syria now lays in ruins with millions of Syrian refugees scattered around the world, but the Russian support of the Assad regime leaves the region with possibilities for greater stability. Russia seems to have accepted Israel’s demands that Iranian forces in Syria be distanced from Israel’s northern border and perhaps removed entirely from Syria. The frequent Israeli air strikes against what are reported to be Iranian bases of operation in Syria could have too easily led to a clash in the skies between Israeli and Russian forces, which is a confrontation that neither side wants to see. It is far easier and strategically safer for Russia and Israel to guarantee that Israel will not have to need or to urge to strike Iranian supported operations in Syria by ensuring that they are distanced from Israel or completely removed from Syria.
Russia’s deep engagement in Syria seems to have been made possible by what appears to be the acquiescence of the Trump Administration. Trump made his intentions clear when he declared that he would withdraw all American troops from Syria. The main obstacles to removing American troops have been the repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria and the Iranian presence which is a direct threat to America’s supreme ally, the State of Israel. Russian assurances to the US on both issues will lead to Trump fulfilling his declaration of withdrawal.
Further south of Syria, in Israel and Palestine, Russia’s presence is far less felt. Last evening at a diplomatic affair in Tel Aviv, I met the new Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov who responded to my statement “It must be difficult to be the Russian Ambassador to Israel in these times” saying “I am still trying to figure out where I am”.
The United States is most definitely the only power broker in this country. The Trump-Netanyahu alliance is seemingly unbreakable and but the United States is a force of one in the UN Security Council on all issues concerning Israel and Palestine. The Israel-US partnership represented by Trump and Netanyahu is isolating Israel in a way that propels the issue to the world stage backed by arrogance that provokes response. The latest example is the Argentina Israel football fiasco that as a result of Netanyahu’s Minister of Sport’s politization of the match by demanding that it be held in Jerusalem rather than Israel’s symbolic capital of Jewish-Arab coexistence Haifa, led to Argentina withdrawing and not coming to Israel at all – much to the deep disappointment of hundreds of thousands of fans, and a decisive victory for Palestinians and their supporters.
Russia will continue to face difficulty in stepping into the Israeli-Palestinian arena, even though it continues to hold a 25% stake in the international Quartet that was established during the George W. Bush era (the Quartet consists of the US, the EU, the UN and Russia). Russia has been largely absent from the Quartet which has been dominated by the US. In the last four year absence of any Israeli Palestinian negotiations, the Quartet has not had much of a role to play. But the need for Russia to be active is most definitely there, particularly after Trump violated ongoing international norms of no unilateral actions on the issue of the future of Jerusalem. The international community has acted for decades under the premise that the future of Jerusalem is an issue that must be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians and until then, its status must be protected under international law.
The Russian position on Jerusalem has been one of principle which has previously stated that Russia would be prepared to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. This is a very constructive approach that provides the basis for a solution. I would suggest adding to that position an addendum that Jerusalem must remain one open city with no physical divisions and that the issue of Jerusalem should be addressed early in future negotiations rather than leaving it to the end – which has been the reality until now. As Jerusalem is the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will also be the center of the solution to the conflict. Russia has a lot of interests (and even property) in Jerusalem. Personally, I would like to see more direct Russian engagement in advancing Israeli Palestinian understandings and peace. Russia can help to level a very unleveled playing field between Israel and Palestine.