At a memorial ceremony in Israel on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would next week host a formal meeting with three national security advisors: John Bolton from the U.S., Nicolay Patrushev from Russia, and Meir Ben Shabbat from Israel. Netanyahu noted his hope that the summit would enhance stability in the Middle East.
The specifics of this tripartite summit will undoubtedly remain obscured, but Russia's presence in Syria looms large. Israel and the United States both harbor significant concerns about Moscow's role in Assad's regime survival, not to mention its coordination with Iran and Hezbollah on the Syrian battlefield. The meeting will likely address the day-after scenarios, including how to navigate the Syrian theater once the civil war winds down.
For Israel, this summit affords an opportunity to begin an earnest conversation on several key topics. The first is a political arrangement in Syria that includes the removal of all foreign forces. Israel seeks a return to the pre-2011 status quo. Foremost on Israel's agenda is the removal of Iranian forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from Syria, along with Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Less urgent, but no less challenging, is the continued Russian presence and role in the region. Neither goal will be easy to achieve. Russia is not likely to cede its new gains in the Middle East, where it has established itself as a power broker. And Iran clearly seeks to expand its presence in the region, in keeping with its hegemonic designs.
Assuming that Russia remains in the region, Israel will push for a mechanism that helps to prevent friction among air forces operating in Syrian air space. Since the global campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group has subsided, the skies are less crowded. However, Israel continues to find the need to operate in this air space, striking Iranian assets destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, or even Iranian targets in Syria, itself. To date, there have been more than 200 such strikes that Israel has claimed. Each of them has tested the Russia-Israel relationship, given that Russia technically controls Syrian airspace.
The key to reducing these tensions is to reduce the need for Israel to operate in this air space. Thus, the tripartite summit must yield a mechanism to prevent Iran's smuggling of sophisticated "game changing" weapons systems, primarily precision-guided munitions (PGMs), to its proxies. This is also a core aim of the United States, but it is still unclear whether Russia will be willing to push Iran on this issue.
From there, the conversation will likely get easier. Israel will look to engage the U.S. and Russia on the issue of containing the remnants of the Islamic State. While it is no longer in control of territory in Syria, the group now poses an asymmetric threat. And it is in the interest of all the major actors to stamp out this threat.
Ben Shabbat will undoubtedly press Bolton and Patrushev to help safeguard Israel's interests. But he may also find a way to play the role of mediator between the U.S. and Russia. The tensions between the two countries have not only exacerbated Israel's challenges, but also some of the challenges each country is experiencing at home. Russia's malign behavior has earned it American sanctions. And Russian policies have challenged America's role in Europe and the Middle East, not to mention American politics at home. The Israeli NSA could help both sides address these issues, to the extent they are ready.
A key friction point to watch will be the clashing policies these two countries maintain on Iran. The Russians have turned a blind eye to Iran's regional aggression, while continuing to champion the 2015 nuclear accord that the Trump administration quit last year. Israel and the U.S. will push for maximum pressure, and Russia is expected to push back. On this issue, Israel will not be viewed as an honest broker.
Netanyahu is understandably emphasizing the importance of this summit. It has the potential to help solve, or at least mitigate, some of Israel's most pressing regional challenges. But the Israeli leadership also views this summit as an affirmation of Israel's global status. The Israelis continue to assert their place as a regional military power, but they are also now keen to convey that the country can play a crucial role in diplomacy, both among Arab states and great powers alike.
Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a visiting professor at the Technion and a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD). He previously served as the head of Israel's National Security Council and as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's National Security Advisor (acting). Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at FDD.