Israel’s latest actions in confronting or stoking regional tensions appear to be related in one way or another with Russia’s attempts to bolster its presence in the Middle East. In wake of the limited confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah on the southern Lebanon border last week, Lebanese and Israeli officials turned to Moscow to contain the tensions.
Soon after, Tel Aviv announced that arrangements were underway for another meeting of the national security advisers of Israel, Russia and the United States to discuss regional affairs and bridge divides over how to handle Iran in Syria and Lebanon. It was later announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to visit Sochi for talks with President Vladimir Putin ahead of general elections in Israel on September 17.
“All roads lead to Moscow,” boast Russian analysts when addressing Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East. Russia is seeking to play a greater role in affairs it was not previously involved in, such as tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. Moscow had during the latest flare-up intensified its contacts with concerned parties to contain the tensions.
Russian diplomatic sources acknowledged concerns that Lebanon and Israel were “one step away” from a new war. Should a new conflict erupt, it will not create a major change in the current balance of power, it will however, be costly for Moscow, which believes that any major confrontation will jeopardize its plans in Russia. This explains why Russia was quick to contact Lebanese and Russian parties to avert a major conflict.
Arab and Russian sources said Moscow was informed by Israel and Hezbollah that they were not seeking a greater conflict. Russia informed Israel that there would be no change in the current rules of engagement and Hezbollah’s attack against its armored vehicle was only aimed at saving face. Neither Israel nor the Iran-backed party want a greater conflict.
Russian experts concluded that their country had now gained greater influence in the region and now held sway over its most complicated conflicts.
Expanded Russian efforts
Russian military sources confirmed that Moscow has indeed started to become more involved in easing Lebanese-Israeli tensions, adding that Iran was “helping a lot” in this regard. Moscow has been successful in playing this role due to its good relations with Israel and Lebanon. This does not mean, however, that a flare-up can be ruled out after the Israeli elections because there are other players in the arena, meaning the United States, warned the experts. Moreover, the Lebanese-Israeli conflict is connected to other regional files, including the situation in Syria, Iran’s malign policies and Washington’s efforts to impose a new status quo that would facilitate the implementation of its yet undisclosed Middle East peace proposal.
Tripartite security meeting
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s announcement that he was seeking to hold a new meeting for the security advisers of Israel, Russia and the US offers a new dimension to the recent regional developments. Sources said that the meeting may be held in Jerusalem in the coming weeks. An informed source told Asharq Al-Awsat, however, that Moscow has not yet decided whether it will join because it was still studying what it could gain from it.
The national security chiefs had met in Jerusalem in June to discuss Syria and Iran’s presence there. They failed to reach common ground on the issue. Head of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev had said at the time that Moscow was keen on ensuring Israel’s security, but this can be first achieved by restoring calm in Syria.
It therefore, became clear that the main dispute was not about discussing Iran’s entrenchment in Syria or its regional policies, but rather, Russia’s refusal to succumb to dictates. An informed diplomatic source told Asharq Al-Awsat that Moscow does not oppose meeting with Israeli and American officials to discuss Iran, but it refuses to join negotiations with predetermined outcomes. In other words, Moscow is flexible about discussing the pullout of Iranian and Russian forces from Syria, but this should take place within negotiations that push forward peace in favor of Bashar Assad’s regime and ensure the security demands of Iran.
Patrushev had said in June that Moscow believes it was more effective to talk with Iran than exert pressure on it. “We understand Israel’s concerns and we want to eliminate the current threats, but at the same time, we must take into consideration the national interests of other regional countries,” he remarked.
Complete Russian-Iranian understanding
This is the main contentious point that impeded progress during the June meeting and the dispute still lingers to this day. Moscow wanted a different result from the talks. It wanted to transform the tripartite meeting into a permanent channel of communication and discussions, not just about Iran, but all other regional affairs that interest the three countries. While still pursuing this goal, Moscow may agree to join the next round of talks.
Furthermore, Russian observers say that Moscow is open to dialogue, but it is not in a rush to offer concessions. One expert said that Russia’s main demand from the US and Israel in Syria is to avoid provoking Iran. This stance is a result of the Russia–Syria–Iran–Iraq coalition that was set up in 2015 as part of the war against the ISIS terrorist group. Russia’s stances are completely aligned with those of the other members of the coalition.
Netanyahu in Sochi
Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Sochi, meanwhile, is not only aimed at boosting his chances ahead of the elections, but it will be an opportunity to tackle latest regional developments. He will discuss with Putin the situation in Lebanon and Russia’s role in containing the tensions. He will also address Israel’s expansion of strikes against Iran in Syria to also include Iraq. Russian media had reported that Israel was no longer giving Russia enough advance notice of the coordinates of its strikes, in violation of agreements between them.