There was a remarkable succession of events in the skies over Syria earlier this month. I see lessons in what happened that none of us should miss. These lessons have to do with Russia’s emerging role as a diplomatic presence—in the Middle East, yes, but far beyond the region, too. There is also Russia’s desire to act as a stabilizing force on the international scene, America’s refusal to countenance any such prospect, and the many lost opportunities the United States inflicts upon itself and all others as a result of what I describe as willful blindness.
Let’s begin with what happened between Syria and Israel a couple of weeks ago.
After a drone aircraft alleged to be Iranian strayed into what was alleged to be Israeli airspace from a position in Syria, Israeli jets struck across the Syrian border, reportedly knocking out a command-and-control center. The hostilities escalated when Syrian artillery brought down an Israeli F–16—which prompted a new wave of Israeli airstrikes. At that point, it looked as if Prime Minister Netanyahu was prepared to escalate his campaign against the Iranian presence on Syrian soil even further—effectively opening a new front in a war that finally shows promise of ending.
Notable enough. But it is what happened next that interests me most.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation.
No one is saying who placed the call, but, given what was said, it is a good guess the Russian president telephoned the Israeli prime minister. By the official accounts from Moscow, Putin told Netanyahu to cut it out. “The president of Russia spoke out in favor of avoiding any steps that could lead to a new round of confrontation, which would be dangerous for everyone in the region,” the Kremlin’s terse summary stated.
Read that sentence carefully.
Putin seems to have issued his veiled warning in part because Israeli bombardments of this kind might come close to involving Russian ground units and interfering with Russian air operations. How close is not clear; closer than Moscow likes, we can say with confidence. But in my interpretation Putin had a larger point: He sought to remind Netanyahu that Russia is committed to stability in the region, Syrian sovereignty, and the peace process Moscow is now trying to advance in a partnership with Iran and Turkey.
Haaretz published an interesting analysis of these events and the conversation that followed. “Putin put an end to the confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria and both sides accepted his decision,” the Israeli daily suggested.
That may prove to be an overstatement. And it is not clear Putin or Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister, are prepared to pick up the phone every time an Israeli jet flies a limited sortie into Syrian airspace, as was the occasional practice long before the war in Syria erupted seven years ago. It is far more likely, however, that the Israeli leadership will exercise more caution than it ordinarily displays. This is where the significance of last weekend’s events lies.
Many commentators have remarked on Netanyahu’s habit, evident since last year, of conferring with Putin on regional matters. We have just seen what this means when a question of considerable substance arises. Not only does Moscow have a diplomatic role to play in the Middle East. It also appears capable of playing it adeptly, so emerging as a balancing influence in a region noted most of all for its imbalances and animosities. (This week it is similarly trying to exert its influence to broker an end to hostilities in Eastern Ghouta, the besieged Damascus suburb.)
Consider: Russia may—let us stay in the conditional for now—have just taken a step toward lessening the hyper-hostile animus Netanyahu assiduously cultivates toward the Islamic Republic. This lessening of tensions would be on top of other stabilizing diplomatic achievements in the Middle East Putin has been able to manage over the past two years. Most notably, he has brought Iran and Turkey, Shiite and Sunni respectively and not noted for their mutual affection, into a diplomatic triad dedicated to a negotiated solution in Syria. And he has gotten the Saudis and Qataris to step back from the worst of their sectarian provocations against the secular government in Damascus. On Wednesday after the weekend’s events, it is worth noting that Putin and King Salman, the Saudi monarch, conferred by telephone on the Syrian situation.
These examples come from the Middle East. There are others. The Korea crisis is one and Ukraine another. In the former case, Russia has worked quietly but consistently with the Moon government in South Korea and, somewhat separately, with the Chinese, to structure not only a framework for a diplomatic settlement with North Korea but a far-reaching blueprint for economic integration that can wire the North into the regional economy and induce it to opt for a lasting reconciliation with the South. In the Ukraine case, Moscow remains committed to working with Paris and Berlin to put Minsk II, the settlement framework signed in 2015 and the only extant route to peace, into effect.
I am well aware of the perils arising from any suggestion that Russia is up to anything but evil in all it does. The arguments in this line have never impressed me when placed against perfectly discernible realities, and they do not now. Too often, the operative assumption is that however Moscow describes its intentions they must be otherwise, for Russians never mean what they say. This is amateur logic on the face of it, but never mind that. In most cases—all of those noted here—one need only consult a map to recognize that Moscow’s interests lie where it indicates they lie. It wants a stable, secular Syria and a Middle East committed to regional security agreements (as favored by Iran, among others). It does not gain as Ukraine, with which Russia has long, dense, economic ties among much else, drifts toward failed-state status. There is much in it for the Russian Far East if North Korea can be brought into a regionally interdependent economy.
It is time to reckon up the cost of our dedication to adversarial relations with Moscow, which are now moving rapidly toward that of Cold War enemies. At the worst extreme the price may be war, of course, but for now it is to be measured in lost opportunity. Review once again the cases I have noted. Moscow, working in concert with others, has helped set courses toward diplomatic resolutions that hold plausible degrees of promise. They are to be built upon—to America’s benefit as much as anyone else’s.
These benefits are a matter of record, should there be any question of them.
Recall what happened in 2013, when Barack Obama snookered himself with his ridiculous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria—only to have sarin canisters land in a Damascus suburb. (Even Defense Secretary Mattis now acknowledges there was never any evidence of the Assad government’s use of sarin gas.) Lavrov went to John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, and offered to negotiate an agreement to ship the Assad government’s inventory out of the country. This got done, whether or not the current administration’s warmongers find this fact convenient, and an unnecessary and dangerous escalation in Syria was averted.
The Iran nuclear accord is another such case. During the long negotiations that produced the agreement, Lavrov and the Russian delegation in Geneva were instrumental in overcoming several of the most difficult obstacles. The one I am thinking of concerned Iran’s legitimate right to its own enriched uranium. Lavrov pushed past this, to the benefit of the United States and the rest of the P5 + 1 negotiating group (the Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany). Iran’s uranium was shipped to Russia, which now sends it back in the amounts necessary for Iran to pursue its medical research and other such programs.
I could not help noting, when the pact with Iran was signed after two years of arduous effort, how muted were Washington’s expressions of thanks to Moscow. (It was the same in the case of the “red line” episode.) Things have worsened considerably since then, of course: At this point, any effort to work with Russia on any front is politically perilous. It is wasteful. It is destructive. Many people pay, and we should not miss it that Americans are not least on the list of losers.