It was the eleventh, and perhaps the most important meeting between President Putin and PM Netanyahu on 27 February, writes the well-informed journalist, Elijah Magnier: “The Israeli visitor heard clearly from his host that Moscow has no leverage to ask Iran to leave – or, to stop the flow of weapons to Damascus … Moscow [also] informed Tel Aviv about Damascus’s determination to respond to any future bombing; and that Russia doesn’t see itself concerned [i.e. a party to such conflict] ”.
This last sentence requires some further unpacking. What is going on here is the mounting of the next phase of the Chinese-Russian strategy for containing the US policy of seeding hybrid disorder – and of pouring acid in to the region’s ‘open wounds’. Neither China nor Russia wish to enter into a war with the US. President Putin has warned on several occasions that were Russia to be pushed to the brink, it would have no choice but to react – and that the possible consequences go beyond contemplation.
In short, America’s recent wars have clearly demonstrated their political limitations. Yes, they are militarily highly destructive, but they have not yielded their anticipated political dividends; or rather, the political dividends have manifested more as an erosion of US credibility, and of its appeal as a ‘model’ for the world to mimic. There is now no ‘New’ Middle East that is emerging anywhere that casts itself in the American mold.
Trump’s foreign policy-makers are not old-style ‘liberal’ interventionists, seeking to slay the region’s tyrannical monsters’, and promising to implant American values: that wing of US neo-conservatism – perhaps unsurprisingly – has assimilated itself to the Democratic Party and to those European leaders desirous of striking (a supposedly morally ‘virtuous’) pose in contra-distinction to Trump’s (supposedly amoral) transactional approach.
Bolton et al however, are of the neoconservative school that believes that if you have power, you use it, or lose it. They simply do not trouble themselves with all those frills of promising democracy or freedom (and like Carl Schmitt, they see ethics as a matter for theologians, and not a concern for them). And if the US cannot, any longer, directly impose certain political outcomes (on their terms) on the world as it used to, then the priority must be to use all means to ensure that no political rival can emerge to challenge the US. In other words, instability and bleeding open-wounds become the potent tools to disrupt rival power-blocks from accumulating wider political weight and standing. (In other words, if you cannot ‘make’ politics, at least disrupts others’ attempts so to do.)
So, how does this play out in President Putin’s messaging to Netanyahu? Well, firstly this meeting occurred almost immediately following President Assad’s visit to Tehran. This latter summit took place in the context of increasing pressures on Syria (from the US and the EU) to try to undo the Syrian success in liberating its land (obviously with much help from its friends). The explicit aim being to hold future Syrian reconstruction hostage to the political reconfiguring of Syria – in the manner of America and Europe’s choosing.
The earlier Tehran summit took place, too, against the back drop of a crystallising mindset for confrontation with Iran in Washington.
The Tehran summit firstly adopted the principle that Iran represented Syria’s strategic depth; and concomitantly, Syria is Iran’s strategic depth.
The second item on the agenda was how to devise a scaffolding of deterrence for the northern tier of the Middle East that might contain Mr Bolton’s impulse to disrupt this sub-region, and attempt to weaken it. And through weakening it, weaken Russia and China (the latter having a major stake in terms of security of energy supply and of the viability of an Asian trading sphere).
President Putin simply outlined the principles of the putative containment plan to Netanyahu; but the Israelis had already got the message from others (from Sayyed Nasrallah and from leaks from Damascus). Its essentials are that Russia intends to stand above any regional military confrontations (i.e. try not get pulled in, as a party to it). Moscow wants to keep ‘doors open’. The S300 air defence system is installed in Syria (and is ready), but Moscow, it seems, will preserve constructive ambiguity about its rules for engagement for these highly sophisticated missiles.
At the same time, Syria and Iran have made plain that there will henceforth be a response to any Israeli air attack on “significant strategic” Syrian defences. Initially, it seems, that Syria likely would respond by launching its missiles into occupied Golan; but were Israel to escalate further, these missiles would be targeted on strategic military targets in the depth of Israel. And if Israel escalated yet further in response, then the option would exist for Iranian and Hizbullah’s missiles to be activated too.
And just to tie the pieces together, Iran is saying that its advisers effectively are everywhere in Syria where Syrian forces are. Which is to say that any attack affecting Syrian forces may be construed by Iran as an attack on Iranian personnel.
What is being constructed here is a complex, differentiated deterrence, with ‘constructive ambivalence’ at all levels. At one level, Russia deploys full ambiguity over the rules of engagement for its S300s in Syria. At another level, Syria maintains some undefined ambiguity (contingent on the degree of Israeli escalation) over the geographic siting of its response (Golan only; or the extent of Israel); and Iran and Hizbullah maintain ambiguity over their possible engagement too (by saying their advisors can be everywhere in Syria).
Netanyahu returned from his meeting with Putin saying that Israel’s policy of attacking Iranian forces in Syria was unchanged (he says this every time) – despite Putin having made it plain that Russia is not able to enforce an Iranian departure on the Syrian government. It was – and is – Syria’s right to choose its own strategic partners. The Israeli PM has however now been formally forewarned that such attacks will be met with a possible reaction that will badly disconcert his public (i.e. missiles landing in the depth of Israel). He knows too, that the existing Syrian air defence systems, (even absent S300 support), are operating with a very high degree of effectiveness (whatever Israeli commentators may claim). Netanyahu knows that Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ and ‘David’s Sling’ missile defences are not highly rated by the US military.
Will Netanyahu risk further significant attacks on Syrian strategic infrastructure? Elijah Magnier quotes well-informed sources saying: “It all depends on the direction the Israeli elections will take. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu estimates his chances are high enough to win a second term, then he will not venture any time soon into a new confrontation with Syria and its allies. The date of the next battle will be postponed. But, if he believes he will lose the election, then the possibility of his initiating a battle becomes very high. A serious battle between Israel on one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other hand, would be sufficient enough to postpone the elections. Netanyahu doesn’t have many choices: either he wins the election and postpones the corruption court case against him; or, he goes to jail”.
This thesis may sound compelling, but the calculus on which it rests may prove to be too narrow. It is clear that the differentiated deterrence ploy, outlined by Putin – though framed in terms of Syria – has a wider purpose. The present language used by the US and Europe signal plainly enough that they are largely finished with military operations in Syria. But, in parallel to the disavowal of further military operations in Syria, we have also seen a consolidation of the US Administration mindset towards some sort of confrontation with Iran.
Whereas Netanyahu was always vociferous in calling for confrontation with Iran, he is not known in Israel as a military risk taker (calling for ‘mowing the Palestinian grass’ carries no political risk in domestic Israeli politics). And too, the Israeli military and security establishment have never relished the prospect of outright war with Iran, unless conducted with the US fully in the lead. (It would always be highly risky for any Israeli PM to launch a possibly existential war across the region, without having a sound consensus within the Israeli security establishment.)
Yet Mr Bolton too, has long advocated ‘bomb Iran’ (i.e. in his NYT op-ed of March 2015). Until recently, it was always assumed that it was Netanyahu who was trying to coat-trail the Americans into leading a ‘war’ with Iran. Is it sure that these roles have not become reversed? That it is now John Bolton, Mike Pence and Pompeo who are seeking not all-out war, but to put maximum hybrid pressures on Iran – through sanctions, though fomenting anti-Iranian insurgencies amongst ethnic minorities in Iran, and though Israel regularly poking at Iran militarily, in the hope that Iran will overreact, and fall into Mr Bolton’s trap for ‘having Iran just where he wants it’?
This is the point of the deterrence package – it is all about ‘containing’ the US. The initiative is constructed, as it were, with all its deliberately ambivalent linkages between actors, to signal that any US attempts to foster chaos in the Greater Levant or in Iran, beyond a certain undefined point, now risks embroiling its protégé, Israel, in a much wider regional war – and with unforeseeable consequence. It is a question not so much whether Netanyahu ‘will risk it’, but will Bolton dare ‘risk Israel’?