At his joint press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump following the summit in Helsinki last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a revealing comment about his intentions towards Israel’s future on the Golan Heights.
“The south of Syria should be brought to the full compliance with the treaty of 1974 about the separation of forces of Israel and Syria,” Putin said.
The Russian leader then expounded further: “This will bring peace to Golan Heights. And bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel and also provide security to the state of Israel … we will make a step toward creating a lasting peace in compliance with the respective resolutions of Security Council, for instance the [UNSC] Resolution 338.”
What do these references to 1974 and 338 portend? Over the past month, Iranian-led militias and Assad regime units, backed by Russian air power, have launched an offensive to recapture southern Syria all the way to the borders with Israel and Jordan. In addition to its red lines about the Iranian presence in Syria, the Separation of Forces agreement has been a principal talking point for Israeli officials in recent weeks, and has been at the heart of their talks with the Russians. Israel has made it clear to Moscow that any attempt by the regime camp to enter the Area of Separation will be met with force. Now that the opposition factions in these areas have agreed to return their villages to regime authority, the Russian military police reportedly will enter the area, so as to ensure compliance with the 1974 agreement.
Following Putin’s comments in Helsinki, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the Russian president, singling out his “clear position” on the Separation of Forces agreement. But the 1974 agreement aside, Putin also made clear his own likely posture towards both the Israeli and Iranian positions in Syria through his reference to UNSCR 338, which speaks of starting negotiations “between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.”
Since the start of the offensive in southern Syria last month, there have been all kinds of optimistic takes on how Russia will agree to rein in the Iranians in Syria. But what Putin actually wants to do, his language suggests, is to establish Russia as the central interlocutor for everyone in the region. To that end, what could be better than the tried and true path of hosting talks between Israel and its adversaries in Syria?
Of course, the notion that Israel would restart talks about the Golan when the Iranians are entrenching themselves in Syria is laughable in the extreme—and the Russians clearly know this. Instead, they might start with technical talks, say, about how best to implement the Separation of Forces agreement, or about the modalities of the return of the Assad regime to the area. That, as Putin said, would be the first step.
Talks in relation to the Syrian regime would themselves only be a gateway to the broader conversation Putin hopes to orchestrate with Iran. The Russians have been making clear that the notion of them pressuring the Iranians in Syria, let alone pushing them to withdraw from the country, which is Israel’s position, is something in which they haven’t the slightest interest. Instead, in keeping with the objective to position itself in the middle, Russia wants Israel and Iran to hash it out, at its table. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explained earlier this month, “there is no other way” but for Iran and its regional adversaries to “sit down at the negotiating table, state their concerns and start talking on how they can remove them on a mutually acceptable basis.”
The idea of a new status quo in which Iran entrenches itself in Syria while Russia positions itself as an “honest broker” to adjudicate territorial claims in the Golan should be a strategic nightmare for Israeli planners, starting with the absence of the United States from the region. Although President Trump spoke positively in Helsinki of Russia working with Israel, the U.S. should seek to preserve its own equities in the region by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. This would effectively make up for the American exit from the region by taking the Golan off the table and backing America’s own ally as Russia aligns with Iran and positions itself as the new regional arbiter.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.