Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Moscow on Wednesday with a simple message for President Vladimir Putin: “We want to work with you to our mutual benefit,” Netanyahu likely said, “but we will not be deterred against taking action to corral Iranian expansion.”
The concern is relevant in light of Iran’s increasingly aggressive mobilization of forces and capabilities in southern Syria and Lebanon. Israel has recently escalated its military campaign targeting those interests and carried out air strikes in Syria overnight on Tuesday. The timing alongside Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow seems likely to have been a message to Putin.
Yet just as Netanyahu is infuriated by Putin’s enabling of Iranian support for Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, both leaders know that they must handle one another carefully.
On Netanyahu’s side of the calculation is the fact that Putin has the ability to support Assad and thus Iranian forces by employing Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense network in their protection. If he decided to take that action, the Russian leader would greatly complicate Israeli air missions to target Iranian forces. Netanyahu would then have to decide whether to fire on Russian S-400 units or watch as Iran turned Syria into a forward operating base for strikes against Israel.
So what can the two leaders do to find a mutual compromise?
Well, I suspect a grand compromise. In return for Israel reducing its support to rebels fighting Assad’s regime and a broader Israeli acceptance of Russian influence in the region, Putin may agree to make it harder for the Iranians to operate in Syria. Indeed, it is possible the Russians are already providing intelligence to the Israelis on the location and operation of Iranian interests in Syria. That compromise would address Russian interests and Israeli interests.
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