After Dina Cohen traipsed through wintry mountainous terrain across the Syrian frontier on her quixotic protest against the hate her compatriots feel toward their Arab neighbors, Bibi Netanyahu faced extraordinary pressure to win her release. He turned to someone with whom he’d done business before quite successfully: Vladimir Putin. They had together negotiated previous prisoner exchanges and weathered numerous military crises which they’d resolved.
This time, Putin made clear that he set the bar high. The concessions expected would be serious and cause some discomfort, especially to Israel’s military planners.
Much has been made of the hundreds of thousands of doses of Russians Sputnik COVID vaccine which Israel purchased for $1.2-million and then gave to Bashar al Assad. But that was child’s play compared to Putin’s big ask.
Russia has largely achieved its goals in Syria. It has vanquished ISIS. Assad’s rule, though brutal and bloody, is now secure. But there are critical factors which continue to destabilize the country. One is Turkey’s intervention to attack Kurdish regions of Syria where it’s fighting against its long-time enemy.
Equally problematic are Israel’s hundreds of air attacks inside Syria on Iranian and Hezbollah targets. The pace of these attacks has only increased over the past few months. They are part of Netanyahu’s tough-guy act toward the two parties who he has turned into Israel’s Public Enemies Number 1 and 2. Quite useful when you face four elections in the span of two years.
These attacks have marred the graceful exit Putin had planned for Russian involvement in Syria. As long as Israel and other parties continue to mount attacks inside the country, Russia cannot leave Assad to his fate there.
Intelligence Online reports that the deal came at a high price, which included an Israeli agreement to cut back IAF strikes in Syria. Putin is eager to reduce the damage to the Assad regime as he seeks to extricate himself from the decade-long conflict. Since the deal was signed earlier this month, there have been no new Israeli attacks. We’ll see if this period of quiet continues.
Netanyahu prides himself on being seen by Israelis as Mr. Security, which is an obsession of voters. Ceasing attacks on Israel’s mortal enemies there will not go over well. And there is yet another election looming in March. That’s a key reason why he clamped down on reporting by slapping military censorship on this story. But I’m happy to defy him and the censor by reporting it here: at your service!
Another important point in the IOL report is that Netanyahu shut his formerly trusted Mossad chief out of the deliberations over this deal. Instead, he turned to his national security chief and the Israeli military attache in Moscow. Israeli media have spoken of an increasing coldness on his part toward Cohen, who will leave his post in a few months. The soon-to-be ex-chief clearly has his eyes set on politics and would be a formidable rival to the prime minister’s leadership; or a credible candidate to succeed him should the corruption trials he faces land him in prison. Netanyahu has a long history of cultivating young protégés like Bennett,, Lieberman, Ari Harow, etc. then turning on them when they become a political threat to his dominance. Relations with Cohen could be taking the same path.