Syrian efforts to extract leverage in its negotiations with Israel from the recent conflict in Georgia failed to materialize. The Syrian failure to take advantage of the opportunity presented by a resurgent Russia resulted from an understanding between the Russians and the Israelis. This development has placed the Jewish state in the middle of U.S.-Russian struggles.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad's Aug. 20-21 trip to Moscow and his subsequent meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, did not produce a Syrian-Russian weapons agreement, contrary to Syrian expectations. While Syria would have loved obtaining systems such as the S-300 missile, leaks from within the Russian presidency suggest Russia was not interested in altering the strategic balance in the Middle East. According to these reports, Moscow would only consider supplying Damascus with "ordinary" armaments, such as Su-30 and Mig-29 tactical fighter jets, the less powerful Pantsir-S1 and Buk-M1-2 missile systems, and guided anti-tank weapon systems. The return of U.S.-Russian tensions has given the Syrians an opportunity to re-evaluate their options in Syrian-Israeli peace talks. The Syrians hoped that acquiring advanced weaponry from a more assertive Russia could strengthen the Syrian negotiating position. There was also talk of Syria seeking a tighter defense alignment with the Kremlin through the deployment of the Russian Iskander missiles on Syrian soil. With this objective in mind, al Assad went to Russia hoping that Moscow would be prepared to work with Damascus in the wake of the war in Georgia. His failure to secure an arms deal, however, meant the Syrians returned home without added leverage against the Israelis. Even so, the Syrian position in talks with Israel has not necessarily been weakened. The Syrians failed because the Israelis were one step ahead of them. Israel had already reached an understanding with the Russians not to supply Israeli weapons to Georgia in exchange for Russia's not supplying weapons to Syria and Iran. That this understanding was reached before the recent Caucasus conflict suggests there might have been contact between Israel and Russia on the issue before Moscow intervened militarily in Georgia. Israel therefore probably suspended arms shipments to Georgia before the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia. The Jewish state knew that the conflict in the Caucasus could have implications for the Middle East, where Israeli support for Georgia would trigger a Russian alignment with Syria. Not interested in playing a role in a U.S.-Russian confrontation nor wanting advanced Russian weaponry in Syrian or Iranian hands, the Israelis apparently decided to work with the Russians — something that could create tensions between Israel and the United States. For Moscow, creating problems for Washington in the Middle East is not as important as re-establishing Russia's sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. This probably explains why Russia has decided not to forge a strategic military relationship with Syria in exchange for Israel's not arming the Georgians. All of this means the Syrians and Israelis can resume negotiations after what ultimately proved a brief distraction. The Israelis in fact have said they will continue their indirect talks with the Syrians despite Damascus' Russian adventure, while Syria has denied it ever sought the deployment of Iskander missiles on its soil to counter U.S. moves to deploy its missiles in Poland. As a result, an interesting dynamic has emerged. These dealings not only have allowed Israel to prevent Syria from enhancing its position at the negotiating table, they have thrust it into position between the West and Russia, potentially allowing the Jewish state to act as an intermediary between Washington and Moscow. Should, however, there be a U.S.-Russian clash over Iran, Israel could find itself in a problematic situation — especially if Moscow ends up providing weapons to Iran. Thus, Israeli interests will force it to continue to play a key role in the U.S.-Russian struggles.