Iranian involvement in Syria is increasing, bolstering Israeli motivation to influence Syria’s reality. Israel has carried out successful military moves in recent years in order to preserve its security interests around its northern border. Its ability to influence Syria’s future using diplomatic channels, however, appears to be quite low. The February 2018 incident between Israel and Iran near the Syrian border provides Israel an opportunity to explore whether additional diplomatic channels can be put in place in order to promote Israel’s interests in Syria and prevent further escalation.
To date, Israel’s diplomatic efforts are directed first and foremost at the US, its central ally. The Netanyahu government and the Trump administration agree on the need to limit Iran’s regional influence, and by the end of 2017 they reached an understanding and a plan of action on the issue. In practice, however, the Americans have little involvement in Syria, leaving Russia as the leading superpower in the conflict there.
Following Russia’s involvement in Syria, Israel has begun making diplomatic overtures to Moscow. The frequent meetings between Netanyahu and Putin allow Israel to voice its concerns to the Russians. Russian and Israeli interests differ, however, and even if the two states establish security coordination and reach occasional diplomatic understandings, the difference in their opinion on Iran’s presence in Syria is large.
After the latest escalation in the north of Israel, it was reported that Israel had also contacted Germany, France, and Britain, asking them to convey messages to Iran against its keeping a firm hold on Syria. These messages probably did not convince senior officials in Tehran to change their course of action. However, Israel approaching these countries shows the importance of Israel’s traditional allies in Europe, toward whom the Israeli government has in recent years taken an aggressive approach on the basis of differences of opinion on the Palestinian issue.
There is another country, with a growing influence on events in Syria, to which Israel has yet to turn: Turkey. In the past, Turkey had called for the downfall of Assad, but it recently changed course and aligned itself with Russia. As a result, it has become a central part of the Astana Process, also shared by Russia and Iran, and in which significant decisions are made regarding the reality in Syria.
Turkey has also recently reached some understandings with the American administration with the aim of toning down tensions between the two countries, which also stem from differences of interests in Syria. Turkey is militarily and politically involved in Syria and has significant interests in shaping the country’s future. Aspects related to Kurds, Syrian refugees, trade and economic relations, as well as geopolitical areas of influence shape Turkey’s policy toward Syria.
Much like Israel, Turkey is also concerned by the growing Iranian influence in Syria, albeit to a different extent and due to other reasons. Turkey and Iran share some interests with regards to Syria, are dividing between them military zones of influence in the country, and are trying not to step on each other’s toes. However, they are not allies in the sense that Israeli officials often portray.
Over the years, Turkey and Iran have been able to foster bilateral cooperation and establish normal neighborly relations, but there is also suspicion and rivalry between them, including on issues of hegemony and influence (not only in the Middle East). Iran’s grip on Syria is not a security threat for Turkey as it is for Israel. Turkey’s concerns are mainly economic and political, and Turkey cannot be expected to take measures that would limit Iran’s military presence in Syria. But, Turkey may have interest in restricting the entry of Iranian products and companies into the Syrian market and weakening the political ties between Damascus and Tehran.
This situation creates a certain alignment of interests between Israel and Turkey which should be leveraged, particularly at a time when the two countries seem to have a limited common agenda. The mutual trust between Turkey and Israel is at a low point, and the positive dynamic created after the signing of their 2016 reconciliation agreement receded in the second half of 2017, especially after the tensions that emerged on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in July.
At the same time, the two countries remained loyal to the reconciliation agreement and now enjoy full diplomatic relations. They continually demonstrate that they can cooperate in certain areas despite fundamental disagreements over the Palestinian issue. The Syrian issue can be yet another example of that.
Given the differences in Israeli and Turkish interests in Syria, and in view of the existing security coordination between Turkey and Iran, an Israeli-Turkish dialogue on Iran’s role in Syria should be diplomatic and economic in nature, and not military. As such, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy (both of which have already taken steps to increase cooperation between the two countries since 2016), should be taking the leading role in these efforts rather than the defense establishment (which has been traditionally dominating Israel-Turkey relations).
Many in the Israeli government reject up front the option of a dialogue with Turkey and consider Erdoğan as an enemy. In the past, they did not believe that the two countries could succeed in reaching an agreement to restore relations, but reality proved them wrong. Just as the relations between Turkey and Iran are complex, so are the relations between Turkey and Israel.
Israel’s interests in its northern border require an in-depth examination of the feasibility of an Israeli-Turkish dialogue on limiting Iran’s role in Syria. Israel’s other diplomatic options did not prove themselves effective enough. Even if such a dialogue will be carried out at first with the assistance of a third party or through unofficial channels, and even if it is finally proven to yield only limited results, it is a diplomatic channel that should not be ruled out and that Israel’s Foreign Service should work to advance.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is Head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.