Israeli Security is the Key to Russian-American Collaboration on Syrian Deescalation

By: Oleg Maslov, Partner/Expert at the Russian Public Affairs Committee

A Syrian flag flies in front of an array of destruction. The Syrian Civil War has been ongoing since March 2011.

In the competition between the world’s greatest military powers, Syria has emerged as the focal point of conflict. The United States has established a military presence in the territory of a sovereign nation with neither a UN mandate nor permission from the government, breaking international law. Russia has extended a serious military contingent thousands of kilometers from its borders for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, displaying its growing military capabilities. These powerful nuclear-armed nations support opposite sides of the battlefield, and neither is willing to back down. However, despite the tension, both Russia and the US have overlapping interests in Syria that far outweigh the potential for conflict.

Although the US has announced that its official aim in Syria is to destroy the Islamic State, there have been reported cases of American warplanes bombing Syrian government army positions directly before an ISIS attack, American-made weapons have been found in rebel weapons caches, and ISIS-related militants have allegedly retreated to Al Tanaf, the American-occupied territory in Syria’s south, in order to avoid conflict with the Syrian army. The public American position has been at odds with American actions. The United States military has remained in Syria long after the defeat of ISIS, both in the Kurdish-dominated northeast of the country and in the Al Tanaf military base. Obviously, America’s goals in Syria go far beyond combatting ISIS. Some US officials have even publicly admitted that America’s main aim in Syria is to help guarantee Israel’s security.

Russia was officially invited by the Syrian government to offer military aid against the rebel factions that attempted to remove the Assad government. Israel has been one of the most active opponents of the Syrian government. In the course of Russia’s military support, Israel has allegedly played a major role in the shoot-down of a Russian military transport plane, has conducted numerous air raids on Syrian government positions without any UN mandate, and has even destroyed some units of Russian military hardware supplied to the Syrian government. In general, Israel’s position toward Russia in Syria can best be described as adversarial.

However, despite these conflicts and potential points of escalation, cool heads have prevailed in Russia, Israel, and the US. Carefully outlined rules of engagement have kept all of these parties from escalating the conflict to a point of no return. Despite Israel’s adversarial position, Russian President Vladimir Putin has maintained warm relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, a trilateral summit brought together officials from the US, Russia, and Israel in Jerusalem to speak about ways to achieve peace. Russia has proven time and time again that Israel’s security is important and that it seeks to maintain full communication channels with the Jewish state. Both Russia and the United States have demonstrated a commitment to prioritize the security interests of Israel, which is a critical starting point for discussions to deescalate the Syrian conflict. However, additional steps must be taken to secure lasting peace and prevent a wider conflict.

Although many critical issues remain, including the ownership of the Golan Heights and the Temple Mount, collaboration on security guarantees for Israel has proven to be an excellent way to bring the two most powerful nuclear nations to the negotiating table. The US-Russia-Israel trilateral summit format mentioned earlier shows great potential as a tool to deescalate the Syrian conflict and manage the resolution process. The Syrian government has emerged as the dominant internal military actor, and its success continues to develop against militant forces in the north, it appears inevitable that the Syrian government will eventually confront US forces, both in Al Tanaf and in the Kurdish-dominated north and east of the country. These future conflicts cannot be allowed to erupt into military violence.

A relatively peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict depends on an agreement between Moscow and Washington. The two sides have already tested an effective format to hold these discussions and it is imperative that these discussions continue. Russia’s serious approach to maintaining good relations with Israel and incorporating Israel’s legitimate security concerns into its Syrian strategy has laid the groundwork for the success of the initial summit. Another trilateral meeting of the US, Russia, and Israel may go a long way to contributing to a solution to the crisis, and the possible inclusion of Turkish representatives may make such a summit even more effective. Washington can play a constructive role in the formation of Syria’s future and should also be involved in Syrian reconstruction efforts, especially in the Kurdish-dominated areas, and should also contribute to the ultimate political resolution.

The longer that the Syrian conflict is allowed to drag out, the higher the chances that any number of flash points can trigger a wider conflict. Military planners in Washington and Moscow both understand that the stakes could not be higher. A resolution to the conflict will enable millions of refugees to return to their homes and hamper the influence of extremist ideology. Negotiations can only be successful when they reach mutually satisfying outcomes that address the interests and needs of all parties. However, before negotiations can be successful, the different sides of the conflict must be brought together and initiate conversation. The security of the state of Israel is one of the biggest drivers of Washington’s involvement in Syria, and Russia has proven itself a capable and thoughtful partner in this regard. Talks centering around Israel’s security have proven to be an effective format in bringing the US and Russia together. Future negotiation efforts can leverage the success of the last summit to begin a wider deescalation process, taking into account the interests of all sides and laying out a roadmap to end this bloody conflict once and for all.

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