Last week the leaders of two countries in the Middle East made their way to Moscow. Both came with concerns about Syria. In their respective meetings with President Putin, one on Thursday and the other on Friday, both were politely pooh-poohed by the Russian leader.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's concern was Iran's military foothold just across the country's border to the northeast. A virtual superpower in the Middle East, Iran is overtly, and implacably, committed to Israel's destruction. Its military presence in Syria moves it next door to the Jewish State.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan is hell-bent on preventing an independent Kurdish state on its southern doorstep in northern Syria.
Erdogan's meeting on Friday, 10 March
Erdogan’s case is entirely different. Originally regarded by Trump as a partner in his plans for Syria, removal of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as the US National Security Adviser - and strong pro-Turkey advocate - has undercut Erdogan’s influence in the White House. Flynn, it turns out, was a paid Ankara lobbyist licensed by the US Justice Department during the Trump campaign.
In any case, the Turkish president lost much of his value as a useful partner when US generals gave low grades to the Turkish army’s operations against ISIS in northern Syria, specifically for its prolonged four-month siege on Al-Bab.
It was on the US generals’ recommendation that the Turkish army was replaced by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to take point in the US offense against ISIS in Raqqa.
Two-thirds of the 55,000 SDF troops are Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which has exhibited exceptional prowess in winning battles against ISIS.
After switching partners, the Americans embarked on a build up of the SDF’s weaponry. The Russians quickly followed suit.
Erdogan was apoplectic.
He tried arguing that the YPG was a terrorist group, a branch of the Turkish Kurdish PKK, and that US-Russian backing would bring about the rise of an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria next door to Turkey.
When this complaint fell on deaf ears, Ankara threatened Thursday, March 9, to attack the Kurdish emplacements at the northern Syria town of Manbij.
Washington reacted by stressing US support for the SDF. But Turkey's threat was hollow. Its troops were not about to confront the wall of US and Russian troops standing in their path.
Erdogan’ traveled to Moscow in a last attempt to persuade Putin to at least promise that he would prevent Kurdish self-rule.
While Putin lavishly praised the Russian-Turkey deal for jointly brokering a ceasefire in Syria, and for the recent peace conference, Erdogan's journey was a wasted trip. He was fobbed off by Putin whose first priority, at least today, is not Turkey's interest. Today his first priority is staying in step with the Trump administration and its head-spinning decision for direct military intervention in Syria.
Indeed, last Saturday, Kremlin sources confirmed: “The Russian-Turkish talks resulted in almost nothing.” They disclosed that the Turkish leader’s main concern was the Manbij standoff in northern Syria.
Netanyahu's meeting on Thursday, 9 March
One day earlier, Israel's Prime Minister did not fare much better. He pressed Putin hard about Jerusalem's security concerns about the entrenchment of Iranian and Hezbollah forces in southern Syria ominously close to the Israel border.
Putin greeted Netanyahu with affection, but made it clear that his overriding concern was coordinating with Trump’s new initiatives in Syria. Israel’s security concerns, for Putin, are a side show. He advised the Israeli leader to look at the big strategic picture now unfolding in the war-torn country.
From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, a large-scale US-0Russian-Krudish military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria would additionally frustrate Iran’s main objective, which is to create a land bridge through northern Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. Putin believes that, once Tehran realizes that Trump will never let this plan take off, the Iranians will pull their forces out of Syria, because their only link with home base would still be by air or sea, both of which routes are exposed to Israeli attacks.
Apparently, Netanyahu indicated to Putin that, for want of any other options, Israel would consider a direct attack on Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria.
The Russian President listened but did not comment.
Judging from the past, Israel would almost certainly ask for a green light from Washington before going through with such a plan – unless, of course, Netanyahu decides that the IDF can go it alone.
Israel's PM chose to tackle the Russian leader on Iran.
Notably, he was welcomed at the White House only weeks earlier. There, he was greeted as a close friend of US President Donald Trump and as the leader of a country strongly supported by the United States.
In fact, Netanyahu is regarded by Trump's administration as the only Israeli politician capable of leading Israel to a breakthrough in ties with the Arab world - and a deal with the Palestinians.