Mon 08 March 2021:
Last week, Israel agreed to finance a supply of Russian-made COVID-19 vaccine to Damascus, to secure the release of one of their citizens being held in Syria. According to media reports, Russia was paid $1.2 million, who then mediated the deal to send Sputnik V vaccines to the Assad regime.
The Israeli national could have been released easily in a prisoner exchange. It begs the question: Why didn’t they do this instead?
Could Israel realize there might be an opportunity, and a relatively cheap and riskless one, to send Assad vaccines? In the volatile history between the two countries, if Assad is serious about starting to collaborate with his traditional enemies it could become a watershed moment. The question remains: Maybe he needs to be put to the test, and will the vaccine shipment do this?
What does Assad want, but what does he need?
Before the Israeli civilian-vaccine deal was made, media reports suggested secret meetings between Israeli and Syrian officials had happened in Cyprus, and in Russian military bases in Syria. All were organized and mediated by Russia, the reports claimed.
Russia had three goals in mind: to sell its vaccine; strengthen the power base in Syria by allowing the regime to maintain a level of popular support with a vaccine rollout, and to secure a connection between Israel and Syria, with eventual peace an option.
Iran will continue to oppose any peace prospects in Syria, but Putin might disagree: An inflated Iranian presence in Syria will eat away at Russia’s foothold in the region, its power, and will hamper international diplomacy efforts that he is championing – or at least pretending to.
As for Assad, this is not the first time he has shown an interest to build peace with Israel. He needs Iran’s help, and he understands that he would have been ousted a long time ago without it, along with Russian military support.
The price of Iran making key decisions in Syria has become too high, with his support base unhappy.
As the Syrian economy crumbles, in parallel with neighboring Lebanon, the discontent is expected to increase. Assad needs a way out, but he cannot confront the Iranians. Despite his condemnation of Israeli bombings of Iranian bases in Syria, privately Assad may view favorable relations with Israel appealing.
Israel is trying to block Iran’s presence and power in Syria, and has been successful. Assad is vulnerable without Iran’s protection. Would an Israeli-Russian coalition offer the same support, allowing him to retain power?
Assad knows that he can’t maintain any public support if the economy is collapsing, and as COVID-19 cases climb it’s clear he needs serious financial and medical health support. Neither Russia nor Iran can provide this. Israel – on the other hand – can assist. By paying for the vaccines (which Putin refused to provide for free), perhaps Israel will offer financial aid.
Time to give Assad an ultimatum
The vaccine deal has secured Assad around 150,000 doses, according to Israeli media. This might help him tighten the small circle around him, and protect the regime from imminent collapse.
Assad has kept the door open to welcome the Israelis for a very long time, but has so far halted any real progress. He has been successful in giving the impression that he is interested in peace, but hasn’t made practical steps in this direction. Accepting to meet with Israelis, and talking about peace is one thing, but getting results is something completely different.
It is time for Israel to tackle his approach, and find out if he will defy Iran’s decisions for Syria. Assad should not be allowed back to the Arab League, for example without concrete steps for peace.
Iran knows this and is in denial. Their rhetoric about defending Syria, and the idea of the country being part of the resistance axis will collapse if admitting that Assad is talking to the Israelis. In a way, Iran hasn’t got to a point of feeling the threat because the Assad regime hasn’t made any clear moves of peace with Israel.
The fissure in the resistance axis is now apparent, and will eventually crack. Nothing breaks alliances and shatters rhetoric more than financial difficulties. When the countries that Iran controls – from Yemen to Lebanon, through to Syria – are crumbling under economic crises, the resistance narrative will eventually become meaningless.
This is the perfect moment to put Assad to the test. If he cannot make concrete, and practical steps toward fulfilling his peace promises, his regime will collapse. Israel should not protect Assad any longer if their meetings, talks, and deals, are only benefiting him and his Russian allies, and indirectly Iran. If he fails the test, he should be treated as part of the resistance axis, and treated accordingly.
Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant. She tweets @haningdr.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Independent Press.
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