Jerusalem Center President Dore Gold spoke at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya on Feb. 12, 2019:
Dore Gold: I think there is a very strong understanding between Israel and Russia about Israel’s freedom of action in Syria. At the same time, I think that there have been very difficult challenges and you’ve talked about the illusions that force us to make extra efforts to improve our communication. I think one of the things that we miss in all this discussion about Iran, Russia, and Israel is the fact that I think the Iranians and the Russians are not natural allies.
I believe that one of the underlying assumptions of the Russian intervention and the permission they give to the Iranians to be there is that the Russian conflict is with the Sunni Muslims. That’s the way they see it. It’s the Sunni Muslims in the Sunni states that have supported the Mujahideen in the Caucasus, and that’s their central problem. So if they are in conflict with these organizations or with countries that support them – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia – they’re addressing their number-one national security concern.
Iran? Iran isn’t their concern, but I think that’s a huge mistake they’re making because any sort of college-level student of the Middle East would lead them to understand that the Shia extremists in Iran have been supporting Sunni extremists for years, and the policy of going after Sunni states and propping up or supporting the Shia intervention in Syria can boomerang against Russia.
This is a very important, fundamental element and in my communications with the Russians, we would often go into these details. And their responses were interesting. It was an argument that they could understand. I think they understood there’s a problem there, and they didn’t speak about Iran as a country with similar values or as a country that they are so firmly allied with.
Interviewer: If the ultimate goal of Russia is to preserve Syria as an influential state under Russia’s influence, then if the Iranians are helping this goal, then they are cooperating with them and they’re not ready to resent them for that.
Dore Gold: A lot depends on your analysis of why the Russians are in Syria. Are they in Syria because they want to show the world, and show the Arab world as well that, unlike the United States with Mubarak, they don’t abandon their allies? That’s a valid theory. It could be that they have other motivations to reestablish their global position vis-à-vis the United States. I’ll give you a third goal. The third goal is because the Chechens and other Mujahideen from the Transcaucasus have gotten involved in these conflicts and have been involved in Syria, and so a victory of jihadi Islam in Syria from their perspective will affect their security directly.
Interviewer: Why doesn’t Russia restrain the Iranians when they see it does not serve the Russians that the Israeli Air Force keeps on attacking Iranians in Syria.
Dore Gold: I think something is going to happen that will shift the Russian policy at some point, but I can’t say when and I can’t say what it is. But I can say these are not allies that are locked together for cooperation for the long term. I think something is going to separate them from one another.
There are many issues that are on our agenda between the United States and Israel, not just the question of Syria. We’re now on the verge of a Trump initiative which will be released after the Israeli elections and it will have a number of details which will be subjects where there’ll be agreement and disagreement.
Interviewer: Do you believe that the Trump peace plan would be something that even remotely the Palestinians would agree to? In terms of that for Netanyahu, if Trump doesn’t get the green light from Abbas and the Palestinians, he doesn’t have to bother? Now, given what we know about the Trump administration, what are the chances that he will put on the table a peace plan that can meet the minimum requirements of the Palestinians so Netanyahu will have to address it, to face it, to confront it?
Dore Gold: I’m not getting into the content of the plan because we don’t know the content of the plan, so it’s sort of a pointless discussion. But what is very clear is that the agenda of U.S.-Israel relations will be very full of rich details that are connected to the plan, and so that’s going to be the area of “Can you help me? Can you not help me?”
Now, as far as Syria goes, if the United States is pulling out of Syria, it’s somewhat limited in what it can do there to shape the nature of the settlement. Now there’s been this mystery about [the U.S. base at] Tanf because sometimes you see reports that Tanf is not included in the American withdrawal, and sometimes you see that it’s all American forces. Now, there’s only a force of 200 troops that have been deployed in Tanf, but it’s a critical area because it’s on this connecting route between Baghdad and Damascus. It’s a way of moving from Baghdad to Damascus without having to cross the Euphrates River. It’s of tremendous value to Iran, so those forces there, although 200 troops don’t amount to much in number, but we used to call that a tripwire back in the days of the Cold War, and if the Iranians start playing around with American troops they’re going to trigger a very powerful American response.
What is going to be the Israeli ask in Syria? Obviously, we’ll still be pushing towards two things: getting Iran out and making sure that the Russians don’t conflict with our operations in the air in Syria. What the U.S. can do if it has reduced its forces isn’t entirely clear. The president did make a statement that he sees the U.S. forces in Iraq as a lever, as a power that could be used in struggling with future scenarios in Syria.
Interviewer: That was perceived as a reaction to the criticism he faced back home about his decision to withdraw from Syria, so he went on a trip to Iraq and said, “We’re going to stay here forever.”
Dore Gold: Well, you know, foreign policy isn’t something you can just pull out of your hat, and therefore these things have to be somewhat thought through, and I don’t think that was said with any consideration of what American policy would be.
Russia is more of a status quo power, meaning it achieved what it hoped to achieve, and it wants to preserve what it achieved in Syria. The Iranians are still a revolutionary power, and they’re not only just employing their own forces. The big story in Syria are the Shia militias, which come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and they are there to upset the applecart, which is not the Russian interest. If Russia’s achievements will be put at risk because of Iranian policy, I see a serious conflict.
Interviewer: Because it has already happened. I mean, the Israeli Air Force attack in Syria, constantly over and over again put in danger the main goal of the Russians to stabilize Syria, and yet the Russians are not putting a red card in front of the Iranians.
Dore Gold: Timing in international diplomacy is one of the hardest factors to predict, but there’s an inherent conflict between these two sides, although they are defined as allies, and at some point it’s going to be expressed.