US has caved in to Russia over Assad and Syria


The closing weeks of 2015 have seen the first signs of a potential power-shift over the Syrian war. The most obvious manifestation of this was the tacit agreement of the US to accept a political solution in Syria without President Bashar Assad's departure.

While both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to insist that Mr Assad has no future in post-war Syria, they have agreed to a UN Security Council resolution that does not mention him. They have also made it clear to the opposition groups that will be involved in the talks taking place in 2016 that insisting Assad goes is a "non-starter". Their capitulation has been a diplomatic victory for Vladimir Putin, who has so far seen mixed results from his high-profile intervention in Syria. On the ground, Russia's military deployment to Syria has prevented Assad from falling but failed to regain large swathes of territory lost to the rebels or Daesh.

It has also come at a cost. In November, Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi fighter-bomber, killing one of its crew. There have been other Russian losses but, for now, these are being hidden from the public back home.

Far more serious casualties have been sustained by Russia's allies. Iran, which has lost dozens of soldiers, is already pulling back much of its contingent. Hizbollah has lost an estimated 1,400 fighters, and thousands more have been injured.

Russia, however, has achieved its main objectives: international recognition for its central role in Syria; a permanent foothold in the Middle East, including its port at Tartus; and world attention deflected away from eastern Ukraine.

The West is now focused on the threat of Daesh, rather on Assad, despite the fact that the Caliphate is responsible for only a fraction of the deaths caused by the Syrian regime.

This has left Israel, always a cautious and beneath-the-radar player on the Syrian scene, in an unexpected position. No fans of Assad, Israel's leadership, however, was not eager in the first two years of the civil war to see him supplanted by Islamists.

In 2013, as Assad grew weaker and increasingly beholden to his Iranian and Hizbollah protectors, Israeli security chiefs became more favourable towards the various rebel groups. Russia's arrival on the scene in late September changed the equation again. Jerusalem has long cultivated a quiet, yet intimate, relationship with Mr Putin and he has met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu twice in the last three months. While ostensibly the Kremlin is allied with Iran in Russia, Mr Putin has promised both privately and in public to safeguard Israel's security interests in the region and the two countries' militaries have been in closely coordinating since. Russia's special envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, visited Israel secretly last Thursday to discuss a potential diplomatic deal to end the civil war.

Two weeks ago, Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who worked for Hizbollah and Iran, was killed in what was assumed to have been an Israeli air strike. It is hard to imagine that such an operation would have been carried out without Russia turning a blind eye. A fact that could not have escaped the Iranians.

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