Key factor in sharply-improved Putin-Netanyahu strategic ties? The Obama White House

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By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, Global Information System / Defense & Foreign Affairs

Israeli-Russian strategic cooperation, already good, was markedly improving in early October 2015.

The primary impediment to this improvement had been the incessant pressure put by the U.S. Barack Obama White House on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Consequently, time and again, Jerusalem let itself be dragged into regional undertakings which were both flagrantly against Russian President Vladimir Putin and detrimental to Israel’s own national security interests, solely in order to pacify what was characterized as “a furious and vindictive” Obama.

Implementation of the strategic understandings reached during Netanyahu’s brief visit to Moscow on Sept. 21, for discussions with Putin proved more complicated than initially assumed. Although the Israeli delegation of 11 senior military and intelligence officers reached concrete and forthcoming arrangements with their Russian counterparts, events on the ground would soon demonstrate that misunderstandings remained on both sides.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, during impromptu meeting in Moscow with Vladimir Putin on Sept. 21. / EPA
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, during impromptu meeting in Moscow with Vladimir Putin on Sept. 21. / EPA

First came an incident on the Golan Heights related to the prominent role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) Brig.-Gen. Saeed Azadi. Azadi arrived in Quneitra, Syria, in early September 2015 as the belated replacement of IRGC Gen. Ali Allah Dadi who was target-killed by Israel on Jan. 18, 2015, along with several Iranian and Hizbullah notables while visiting the Israeli border near Quneitra. Azadi was wearing two hats: that of the commander of the Iranian-Hizbullah forces supporting the Syrian military in the fighting in southern Syria, and that of chief adviser to, and de facto commander of the Iranian-Hizbullah forces preparing to open a new front against Israel on the Golan Heights.

After the Israeli target-killing in January 2015 of the then-notional commander of jihad Moughniyah, Samir Kuntar emerged as the claimant commander on behalf of the Hizbullah.

On Sept. 25, Azadi ordered his forces to fire a few rockets into Israel’s Golan Heights. Jerusalem protested and was assured the fired was “errant”. The next day, Sept. 26, Azadi ordered a second firing of a few rockets. At the time, Azadi was operating in the headquarters of the Syrian 90th Brigade just outside Quneitra. This time, Israel retaliated by launching a Tamuz missile against the artillery command post of the Syrian 90th Brigade, causing damage and injuring several including the deputy commander.

Putin contacted Netanyahu to protest the Israeli strike against the Syrian military and to remind Netanyahu of the Kremlin’s request that Israel stop striking the Syrian military in retaliation for “rebel fire” across the Golan Heights border. Netanyahu responded that Israel had no problem with the Syrian and allied operations against the jihadists even near the Israeli border. Israel, however, would not tolerate anti-Israel operations by Iran and the Hizbullah. Netanyahu urged Putin to have Damascus restrain the concurrent anti-Israel operations and build-up under Azadi.

President Putin promised that Russia would exercise tighter and better control over its allies and proxies while reiterating that Israel must not impede the Syrian-led offensives from the Damascus area toward the Jordanian border to the south.

The next incident occurred in October, off the eastern coast of Cyprus.

An Israeli patrol of four F-15s on a reconnaissance mission encountered six Russian Su-30SMs which had scrambled from Hemeimeem to investigate. The Russians made a wide maneuver and initially approached the Israelis while flying in attack formation. Both sides “sniffed” each other and completed identification. The F-15s then turned south and the Su-30SMs turned east. No shot was fired and at no time there was a threat of violent confrontation. Nevertheless, both sides realized that such an incident could have been avoided through better coordination. Ultimately, closer coordination was required as both the Russians and the Israelis were monitoring vaster areas than the other side assumed initially. The local instability was heightened a couple of days later when Su-30SMs were scrambled to visually identify a USAF aircraft near Aleppo which refused to identify itself.

Moscow and Jerusalem moved quickly.

On Oct. 6, Russian Deputy Chief of the General Staff Col.Gen. Nikolai Bogdanovski led a senior delegation to Tel Aviv to meet with his Israeli counterpart, Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan. They co-chaired a two-day meeting aimed to establish practical measures for better “regional coordination” between the two states and their armed forces. The two sides agreed on a mechanism to avoid “misunderstandings” in the Syrian airspace and adjacent areas.

The primary outcome of the Russian visit was the establishment of two hot lines: One between Tel Aviv and Moscow at the Deputy Chief of General Staff level, and the second between the air operations control centers in Tel Aviv and directly in Jabla near the Hemeimeem Air Base at the Chief of Air Operations level. This way, both sides would be able to better understand each other, and not just avoid mishaps.

A key understanding was that Israel would have free hand dealing with its enemies in Syria and Lebanon while Russia would do its utmost to contain Iran and Syria with emphasis on blocking the transfer of “offensive weapons” to Hizbullah so there would be lesser need for Israel to strike. For its part, Israel reiterated its commitment not to interfere with the defeat of the jihadist forces in southern Syria, including the predominantly CIA-sponsored entities. Israel also agreed to provide Russia with intelligence on the Syrian opposition in the context of a comprehensive intelligence-sharing and joint strategy formulation process. Moreover, at the Kremlin’s request, the Israeli hot lines now coordinated through the back door also U.S.-led coalition aerial traffic even as the Obama Administration was putting political brave face and was publicly refusing to meet the Russian demands for coordination.

Meanwhile, President Putin continued to go out of his way to reassure Israel.

In mid-October, he dispatched to Israel his close friend and confidant, Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Berel Lazar, at the head of a delegation of some 50 Jewish community leaders. The sole goal of the delegation was express in word and deed solidarity with Israel’s Jews. Rabbi Lazar and the delegation visited and prayed in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem. These are all ancient Jewish sacred sites whose ownership is contested by the Palestinian Authority.

Rabbi Lazar met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and declared that Putin instructed him to “come to deliver a message that terrorism must not win”. The delegation’s tour was organized accordingly. “Therefore, despite these current hard times, we have chosen to visit all the locations in which terror has struck during the last days,” Rabbi Lazar explained. This demonstration of solidarity is also important for Russia’s Jews. “A strong Israel is a strong Diaspora and a strong Diaspora is a strong Israel. Standing together makes it much easier for all of us.”

In the coming weeks, President Putin continued to praise the Israeli cooperation and coordination.

Russian operations in the vicinity of the Golan Heights escalated in the second half of October 2015. The Russian Air Force launched a concentrated bombing campaign against jihadist forces near the Golan Heights. The bombing campaign kept escalating over the coming three weeks. Russian Su-25s provided close air support to Syrian, Iranian and Hizbullah forces attacking jihadist positions along a wide front toward the Jordanian border. Some of these strikes were not far from the Israeli border with several targets in the Daraa region being less than 10 km from the border. A few Su-25s briefly violated Israel’s air space. Israel scrambled F-16Cs to look around, but nothing happened.

Israel became apprehensive in late-October 2015 when IRGC Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani visited the Syrian Army’s 90th Brigade base near Quneitra to discuss regional operations.

He arrived a few days after the commander of the Iranian and Hizbullah forces in the region, IRGC Col. Nader Hamid, was killed during fighting against the jihadists. While in Quneitra, Soleimani cited intelligence reports that Hamid had actually been target-killed by Israel because he strayed too close to the Golan Heights border. The Syrian and Iranian commanders assured him that Hamid was killed in action. Nevertheless, Soleimani inspected the battle lines in the Quneitra area including forward positions about 1.5 to two km from the Israeli border. He berated the Hizbullah commanders for not doing enough, but also promised Iranian reinforcements to boost the 500 Hizbullah fighters in the region.

Jerusalem was apprehensive whether Soleimani’s visit and promise of support were meant to help the war effort against the jihadists or the Israeli border. The Kremlin assured Jerusalem that the understanding regarding peace on the Golan Heights were ironclad.

On the night of Oct. 30/31, the Israeli Air Force conducted two major bombing raids in Syria, the first since the beginning of the Russian intervention. The first target was a Hizbullah base near the village of Ras al-Ein in the Qalamoun Mountains on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Six Israeli fighter-bombers arrived from Lebanon and destroyed the base and heavy-weapon convoys which were preparing to travel into Lebanon. Shortly afterwards, an Israeli formation of six or eight fighter-bombers struck the depots of the 155th Brigade of the Syrian Army at Al-Qatifa, some 70 km to the east near Damascus. The bombing raid destroyed arms depots being prepared for hand-over to the Hizbullah. The Israeli Air Force destroyed two key points in the Iranian supply route to the Hizbullah. There was no public comment from Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Russian-sponsored offensive near the Golan Heights continued to escalate since late November. On Dec. 1, Syrian and allied units expanded their offensive thrusts between Daraa and Quneitra. Over the next few days, the most challenging battles were over a line of hills stretching just south of Quneitra to the Israeli-Syrian-Jordanian border junction; that is, in parallel and close to the Israeli border. The Syrian-led offensive enjoyed massive air support from Russian aircraft as well as Russian-guided tanks and heavy artillery.

Throughout, the Russian fire support officers ensured that there were no “errant” shells across the Israeli border.

The situation further complicated when the local forces of the Islamic State (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham started fighting each other over responsibility for the collapse of their lines. The Islamic State dispatched several martyrdom-bombers and car-bombs against Jabhat al-Nusra centers in the Quneitra area, causing heavy damage and numerous casualties. In response, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham attempted to provoke the Syrian forces to strike Israel and elicit retaliation by attacking units of the 90th Brigade from very close to the border.

The Syrian forces did not react. As well, all jihadist forces brought their wounded to the Israeli border fence knowing that IDF medical crews would take care of them.

By mid-December 2015, Syrian and Hizbullah forces were able to contain the heavy fighting to the strategic complex in the area of Tel Douba near Quneitra. The area is very close to the Israeli border. Under extremely heavy Russian bombing, the Syrian forces were able to evict the jihadist forces positions near the border town. However, on Dec. 21, 2015, local jihadist forces and reinforcements arriving from northern Jordan launched a counter-attack on Tel Douba perilously close to the Israeli border. They succeeded in forcing the Syrian military to withdraw from one of the main outposts in Tel Douba. The Syrians launched their attack on Dec. 23, with the Russians once again providing air and artillery support very close to, but not across, the Israeli border.

Meanwhile, President Putin continued to hail the cooperation and coordination with Israel.

On Nov. 30, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin met in Paris. Netanyahu highlighted the contribution of the Israeli-Russian military cooperation in preventing “unnecessary accidents”. Both alluded to the shoot-down of the Russian Su-24 by Turkey. “The events of recent days prove the importance of our coordination, our deconfliction mechanisms, our attempts to cooperate with each other, to prevent unnecessary accidents, tragedies, and I believe that we’ve been successful,” Netanyahu said. In response, Putin praised the “mechanism of cooperation” established by the two General Staffs. He credited Netanyahu for the initiative. “Let me note that the mechanism that has been promoted by you and proposed by you, that presupposes contacts with our military to prevent incidents to or due to the traumatic developments in the region has been efficient,” Putin told Netanyahu.

On Dec. 11, President Putin once again hailed the cooperation and coordination with Israel as the type of coordination the Kremlin would like to see with others such as the U.S. and NATO as Russia is escalating the air campaign in Syria.

Meeting with the Russian High Command, President Putin instructed that it must coordinate its anti-terrorist operations and other actions with the Israeli High Command. “It is important to enhance cooperation with all the countries which are really interested in eliminating terrorists. I am speaking of the contacts aimed at ensuring safety with Israeli Air Force command posts and with the forces of the anti-ISIL coalition led by the United States,” Putin said.

The Israeli Air Force struck again on the night of Dec/ 19/20, this time in Damascus. Two Israeli F-15Is launched missiles at a building in Jaramana, an eastern district of Damascus. The building collapsed, killing Samir Kuntar (the head of of Hizbullah anti-Israel networks in southern Syria and the Golan Heights), Farhan Issam Shaalan (head of the National Syrian Golan Resistance Organization), two Iranian senior officers of the IRGC Intelligence known as Mohammed Riza Fahemi and Mir Ahmad Ahmadi, and several of their aides. They were meeting in order to plan the next round of Iran-sponsored terrorist operation against Israel from the Golan Heights areas recently secured by the Syrian military.

Israeli senior officials considered the operation a proof that Russia did not attempt to prevent Israel from addressing its own critical security issues. The Kremlin shrugged any media effort to challenge the Israeli-Russian cooperation, noting that the two F-15Is were above Israel’s Sea of Galilee when they launched their missiles.

President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu held a phone conversation on Dec. 22. They agreed, according to Russian senior officials, “to further coordinate their actions to fight terrorism in the Middle East”. The two also discussed the Syrian crisis. “Vladimir Putin stressed that there is no alternative to the launch of intra-Syrian negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, as well as to the continued and uncompromising fight against the Islamic State and other extremist groups acting in Syria,” the Russian officials said. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refused to comment on whether Israel coordinated with Russia the target-killing of Kuntar. “There is a working mechanism of information exchanges between the General Staffs. It is the military who should be addressed with this question and asked if there had been any prior notifications on that score,” Peskov said.

Very senior Arab defense and intelligence officials were convinced that there begun a new era of close cooperation between the intelligence services of Russia and Israel to the detriment of the jihadist forces.

They insisted that Israel’s recent bombing of Hizbullah weapon depots and convoys, as well as the target-killing of Kuntar and his group, should be attributed to “a Russian collusion” with Israeli intelligence. Moreover, Arab officials were now convinced that the target-killing by the Russian Air Force of Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush and seven other senior jihadist commanders from the Damascus area was a result of intelligence cooperation with Israel.

The Russian Air Force brought down a building in the Utaya area north of Marj al-Sultan Air Base in Damascus city just as the senior commanders were sitting for a secret meeting about the future of their jihad in the Damascus area. According to these Arab senior officials, the target killing of Alloush, a special protégé of Saudi intelligence, was the first spectacular outcome of the Israeli-Russian intelligence cooperation.

Indeed, in the early morning hours of Dec. 26, 2015, the Russian Air Force conducted another major target-killing raid: destroying a building near al-Zorba, south of Aleppo along the M5 Aleppo-Damascus Highway, during a meeting of the regional commanders of Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham, Harakat Nouriddeen al-Zinki, Jaysh al-Islam, and Liwaa Suqour ash-Sham. Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham leader Ahmad Abu al-Baraa, who chaired the meeting, and all other attendees were killed.

Undaunted, the Obama White House continues to try hard to undermine the Israeli-Russian anti-jihadism cooperation.

The primary instrument has been President Obama’s incessant pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu to agree to a new rapprochement with Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan. Washington pressure persisted even though the viability of the initiative has been doubted by Israeli senior officials with extensive experience with Ankara.

The Israeli officials believe that Obama’s initiative was aimed solely to ensure Israeli gas supplies in order to alleviate the possible Turkish shortage of gas should the Russians cut the supplies in retaliation for the shoot-down of the Russian Air Force Su-24 on Nov. 24, 2015. By the end of 2015, President Obama was still pressuring Prime Minister Netanyahu to go along despite doubts and misgivings of Netanyahu’s own defense and intelligence seniors, and vocal opposition coming from Erdogan’s own coterie.

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