Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin Wednesday in the Russian resort town of Sochi to discuss how Iran’s “accelerated” presence in Syria threatens the Jewish state and the Middle East.
Netanyahu was joined in Sochi by Yossi Cohen, director of the Mossad intelligence agency, and Meir Ben-Shabbat, the recently appointed leader of Israel’s National Security Council.
“Mr. President, with joint efforts we are defeating Islamic State, and this is a very important thing,” Netanyahu told Putin. “But the bad thing is that where the defeated Islamic State group vanishes, Iran is stepping in.”
“We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel,” he said. “It arms terrorist organizations, it sponsors and initiates terror.”
Netanyahu also noted that the Islamic Republic is “well on its way” to controlling not only Syria, but other countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
“Beyond making the argument that Iran’s growing sphere of influence threatens Israel, I hope Netanyahu pointed out to Putin [in their private meeting] that Moscow’s short-term benefits from working with Tehran pale in comparison with the long-term dangers,” Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum think tank, told JNS.org.
“When strong enough, the mullahs inevitably will turn their aggressive ideological attentions on an increasingly Muslim Russia,” he said.
During the portion of the leaders’ meeting that was open to the public, Putin did not respond to Netanyahu’s comments regarding Iran’s role in Syria.
In the closed-door part of the meeting, the Mossad’s Cohen reportedly presented the Russian leader with “sensitive, credible and very disturbing detailed intelligence” of Iran’s expanding military presence in Syria.
Citing a senior Israeli official, Haaretz reported in July that Israel is aware of Iranian plans to build up its forces in Syria through the establishment of permanent air and naval bases.
“[Israel must] put pressure on the Russians” to protect its security interests in Syria, Prof. Eyal Zisser, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and the vice rector of Tel Aviv University, told JNS.org.
Yet Israel has “relatively little leverage” over the Russians, said Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
“Israel has its own missile defense and air defense systems for its own perimeter, which gives it a seat at the table,” Schanzer told JNS.org, “but in terms of telling the Russians or the U.S. what to do, this is a heavier lift.”
Netanyahu’s visit to Russia comes after a high-level Israeli security delegation met with senior U.S. defense officials last week in Washington, D.C. The Israeli officials were dismayed over a failure to secure a commitment from the U.S. for an inclusion of a clause demanding the full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria in the event of a peace deal to end that country’s civil war.
“The problem now is that things have evolved quickly in a way that has left the Israelis without many options,” Schanzer said. “And we’re seeing a quickening of this Iranian land bridge [stretching from Iran to Lebanon] and the installations that the Iranians are building.”
Since becoming actively involved in the Syrian Civil War in 2015, Russia has worked closely with Iran in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Israel, meanwhile, has allegedly conducted several missile strikes targeting Iranian-sponsored weapons convoys heading to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
Netanyahu said in July that a cease-fire agreement in southern Syria, brokered by the U.S. and Russia at the G20 Summit in Germany, perpetuates the presence of Iranian forces near Israel. America and Russia responded to Netanyahu’s criticism by saying Israel’s interests would be taken into account in the war-torn state.
“What we can say for certain is that the Israelis have been consistent in their messaging with the Russians,” said Schanzer. “They have been firm on their needs and demands. In other words, they have said…‘This is what we are going to do when we see certain Iranian or Hezbollah activity.’”
Putin and Netanyahu have held five other bilateral meetings during the past two years to discuss regional issues, and to help maintain a protocol that prevents friction between their militaries in Syria. The leaders last met in Moscow in March.
“What’s needed right now,” Schanzer said, “is a broader pressure campaign against the Iranians….International pressure and attention at the United Nations is probably what is in order.”
While America’s strategy regarding Iran’s role in Syria “is still evolving,” he said, Israel is “in a different mode now as the dangers are becoming more acute.”
In Schanzer’s estimation, once the Iranian land bridge in Syria takes shape, “there will be choke points that the U.S. and Israel can target that will potentially weaken Iran’s position.”
“Once you build a land bridge, you need to maintain it,” he said. “This is not static situation.”