By: Scott Taylor
On Monday, Sept. 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The topic of their discussion focused on Russia’s new pledge to openly intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war.
Since the onset of hostilities in the spring of 2011, Russia has covertly supported embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s support for the Syrian government was roundly denounced by Western leaders — including Canada’s then minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird — who were all in support of the Syrian rebels. Of course, that was before it became apparent that those fighting to oust Assad were primarily Islamic fundamentalists including al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Once the ISIS threat in Syria spilled into northern Iraq in the spring of 2014, the U.S. cobbled together an international alliance — which includes Canada — to commence airstrikes in order to contain ISIS advances. That mandate soon morphed to allow the air alliance — which includes Canadian warplanes — to attack ISIS targets inside Syria.
Although ISIS fighters are battling Assad loyalists, the U.S. and Canada maintain the public position that we are not fighting in support of Assad, we are simply fighting against his enemies.
The Russians on the other hand are open in their support of Assad’s regime and they have made it clear that the best way for them to accomplish this is to help the U.S.-led alliance — which includes Canada —in defeating ISIS by military means.
As all of this is happening on Israel’s doorstep, it is no wonder that Netanyahu wanted to pay a visit to Putin. While it is true that Syria and Israel have long maintained a frosty relationship that has been punctuated by the occasional flare-up into full-blown combat, the fact is that the Israelis know they can control the Assad government. In fact, it has for over 40 years: since Israel captured and annexed the strategic Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Since that time, Assad and his father Hafez, who ruled Syria before him, made no attempt to reclaim the territory or to seriously threaten Israel. While keeping an iron grip on their own population, the ruling Assads knew that another military showdown with Israel would be catastrophic.
However, this sentiment is not held by the Islamic fundamentalists fighting to oust Assad in Syria. One battle slogan of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked group fighting Syrian security forces, proclaimed that they would first “Give Assad the Gadhafi treatment (i.e., kill him in the street) and then reclaim the Golan.”
Thus, it is easy to see why Netanyahu would not be opposed to seeing Russian military resources help prop up the collapsing Assad government. It is clear that what could come next in Syria poses a far graver danger to the security of Israel. Of course, Netanyahu realizes that any support for Assad also means aligning with and supporting Hezbollah and, by extraction, their Iranian backers. This is the pragmatic reality of the complex Middle East mosaic where there is no clear-cut good guy or bad guy. Decisions must be based often on choosing the lesser of two evils and, in the case of Syria, it would be seen that ISIS is the greater of many evils.
Israel sanctioning and co-operating with the Russian military intervention in Syria must complicate things considerably for the Harper government. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander recently told a crowd of Ukrainian Canadians that Putin’s interference in the Ukraine is “the biggest issue facing the world today” and that “Vladimir Putin is behaving like a terrorist.”
Now Putin is committed to fighting ISIS and that means fighting alongside the U.S.-led coalition, which includes Canada. Then comes the development wherein Israel says they are cool with Russia intervening against ISIS as long as they respect certain conditions pertaining to the ongoing status of the Golan Heights.
The Harper government’s Middle East policy has long been that Israel has a blank cheque when it comes to Canada’s unwavering support. Harper and Netanyahu are friends (heck, Harper even serenaded Netanyahu with the tune Hey Jude in Tel Aviv back in January 2014). Therefore it must have pained Harper to see his chum making nice with Putin in Moscow.
With no mention of Russia getting out of the Crimea, Netanyahu obviously cares about the security of his own backyard, and he understands far better the dangerous dynamics of his volatile neighbourhood.