TEL AVIV – In a major strategic shift, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Moscow on Monday that Israel and Russia had agreed to coordinate military moves in Syria to avoid the possibility of the two countries accidentally trading fire.
While the decision seems like a logical one in an arena where both the Israeli and Russian militaries are sometimes active, the arrangement could expose Israeli military actions to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose military bases often are the targets of Israel Air Force activity inside Syria.
At the same time, the stepped-up Israel-Russia cooperation marks yet another example of the warming of relations between a traditional U.S. ally in the Middle East and the Russian axis at a time when the Obama administration has opened relations with Iran, culminating in the recent international nuclear agreement with Tehran.
The shifts in the Mideast tectonic plates mark perhaps some of the most dramatic strategic changes in the region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The fall of the Shah of Iran came a few years after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ousted Soviet diplomats and about 15,000 Soviet military advisers from his country and then canceled the Egyptian-Soviet friendship treaty in 1976 during the Cold War.
Four decades later, Russia appears to be in the process of restoring its pre-Cold War era relations with Middle Eastern countries, especially those who feel scorned by Obama’s Iran posturing.
In March, WND reported Saudi Arabia had quietly reached out to arch-foe Russia in an attempt to temper Iran’s regional influence, resulting in the opening of back-door dialogue between Russia and Saudi Arabia aimed at possibly forging a new alliance, Middle Eastern defense officials said.
Since the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, there have been widespread reports of plans by Russia and the Saudis to possibly step up cooperation on energy policies.
The mood marks a major departure following years of bad blood between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The Saudis have been backing the insurgency targeting the Assad regime, known to closely cooperate with Moscow.
Moscow has long accused the Saudis of supporting Islamists operating in the Caucuses, primarily Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, as part of an alleged destabilization campaign.
The Russians have also claimed the Saudis, working in conjunction with the West, have been attempting to lower oil prices in a scheme to damage the Russian economy.
The sour relations go back to the Cold War, when the Saudis sided with the U.S. by supporting the American-aided mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Russian invasion there.
Forty-two years after Sadat booted the Soviet military advisers from his country, the two nations are on course for significant military and economic cooperation. Indeed, the shifting U.S. regional alliances have seen Russia’s military relationship with longtime U.S. ally Egypt grow ever closer.
The Obama administration has been cool to the secular, moderate government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, led my Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Ever since the U.S. abandonment of Sisi’s regime, Egypt has grown increasingly closer to Russia, as evidenced by the $3.5 billion arms deal between Cairo and Moscow signed last year.
In March, Egyptian Defense Minister Sidqi Sobqi and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced in Moscow the expansion of Russian-Egyptian military cooperation, which will reportedly include a historic joint naval drill in the Mediterranean Sea.
Additionally, Egyptian soldiers and officers will train in Russian military academies, reported the Moscow Times.
In February, Sisi and Putin signed a preliminary agreement to cooperate on building a nuclear power plant in Egypt.
In March, Russia inked a $10 billion deal to build the first nuclear power plant in Jordan, another traditional U.S. ally.
And now, under the Obama administration, the U.S.-Israel alliance, the linchpin of America’s Mideast foreign policy, is under historic strain.
While Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow was mostly portrayed as an effort to allay Israeli concerns about Russia’s military build-up in Syria, common threats, such as ISIS, were discussed along with cooperation that could extend beyond just the coordination of military moves is Syria.
Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow generated images of the Israeli leader seated next to Putin in the Russian capital ahead of his visit with Obama in the White House on Nov. 9.
Russia in recent weeks has reinforced its strategic airfield in Syria’s Latakia province with 24 more Russian attack aircraft. Moscow also has flown in more aircraft to protect its naval base in Tartus, the singular Kremlin military installation on the Mediterranean Sea.
The moves are seen by U.S. military analysts as Russia’s attempt to prop up the Assad regime as it continues to lose ground to the Islamist rebels.
“We know that the Syrian army and Syria as a whole are in such a state that they have no time for a second front. They need to save their own state,” Putin told Netanyahu at the start of their meeting Monday about Israeli concerns over the intentions of Assad. “But still, I understand your concerns.”
The meeting comes amid stepped-up Russian-Israeli relations and the establishment of Russia in the last few years as Israel’s largest supplier of crude oil. Russia and Israel have been in discussions about increasing Israeli agricultural exports to Russia as well as other new economic projects.
Last year, Russia and Israel launched discussions on the prospects of creating a free-trade zone known as the Customs Union, which would bring together Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Israel.
Still, Israel remains deeply concerned about Russia’s alliances with Iran and Syria and its long=standing support of the Palestinians’ unilateral statehood bid.