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Ruth Riegler

Putin's Israel outreach could signal big policy changes for Russia

Israel and Russia are forming a close relationship under strongmen Putin and Netanyahu [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 December, 2017

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Putin's push to end Syria's war could see Russia pursue a more pragmatic approach to regional issues, which will likely see Iran dumped in favour of Israel, says Ruth Riegler.

In the furore over US President Donald Trump's latest political bombshell - in recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital - two interesting developments related to the announcement were overlooked in most media.

Both related to Moscow and suggest that Trump is not alone in seeking to build closer relations with Israel. It also appears that Vladimir Putin is attempting to take advantage of Moscow's closer ties with Tel Aviv to reach out to Russia's own Christian leadership and communities.

On 5 December, Kremlin's press office issued a statement about a meeting between Putin and a delegation of Russian Orthodox church leaders, held to mark the 100th anniversary of the restoration of the Russian Patriarchate.

Talks focused primarily on Putin lauding Russia's intervention in Syria and Moscow's growing influence elsewhere in the region.

After praising the Orthodox Church's provision of humanitarian aid to Syria and its assistance in restoring Christian churches in the country, the Russian president stated that as well as aiding Syrian Christians and Muslims, they will also "help Judaists".

"Some Jewish organisations have already asked us to help restore the Judaist temples," Putin is reported to have said.

"We are in contact with representatives of the Jewish community of Syria - namely with some of its Jewish organisations - and in the United States, including those in New York. We will work together on this problem."

Exiled minority

The reference to Russia's outreach to Syria's Jewish community - now in exile - is a departure from Russia's traditional role as a guardian of the Middle East's Orthodox Christians (or under the USSR, helping "anti-imperialist" groups or dictators) suggesting that a major policy shift might be in the works.

Under the Assads, the Syrian regime has positioned itself alongside Iran as the fulcrum of the "Axis of Resistance" to Israel.

Syrian Jews have complained of discrimination, including restrictions on employment and travel under the Assad regimes.

Due to this continued sense of persecution in Syria, by 2005 only an estimated 80 Syrian Jews remained from a population that once numbered several thousand, according to a US State Department report.

The last Jewish family in Syria was reportedly smuggled out of the country in 2015, in an operation coordinated by Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana.

They were not only fleeing the threat of the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda, but also the Syrian regime whose forces were blamed for the destruction the country's oldest synagogue during a bombardment of Damascus' Jobar district in 2014.

Putin has become a bedrock of the politically powerful US pro-Israel lobby and the country's influential so-called alt-right movement.

The Assads also sheltered Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, the right-hand man to Adolf Eichmann who was the architect of Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution".

Brunner allegedly advised the regime on torture techniques up to his death in 2010. Asked in a 1985 interview if he had any regrets, Brunner responded: "My only regret is I didn't murder more Jews."

Israel over Iran

Given this turbulent history, along with current events, it is improbable that the Syrian-Jewish community - which Putin refers to - would agree to work with the Assad regime or with its Iranian backers, who else have an antagonistic relationship with the region's minority.

Meanwhile, Israel's repeated threats to escalate hostilities against Syria in response to the strong Iranian presence there threatens to further ratchet up already soaring tensions in the country.

Rhetorical and actual clashes between the two sides have led to a potentially explosive situation in Syria - and the region in general.

It comes as Putin attempts to finalise a political settlement in Syria after Moscow recently announced plans for a military drawdown from the war-torn country by the end of this year.

Putin is now working on minimising potential tensions in the region, entrenching Russia's foothold and striking a diplomatic balance wherever possible.

Another apparently minor but significant detail in recent weeks was that Russian tech giant Yandex have reportedly joined Google in identifying Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on maps, just days after Trump's controversial declaration.

Whilst this excited little comment, it's unlikely that such a politically-charged and potentially provocative decision by the company was taken without tacit approval from the Kremlin, which recognised West Jerusalem as Israel's capital in April.

With Moscow now working more closely with Washington in their war against the Islamic State group - to the extent of the Russian and US leaders issuing a joint statement in November - Putin is keen to consolidate his military and political achievements in the Middle East.

He is now working on securing Russian gains by minimising potential tensions in the region and striking a diplomatic balance wherever possible.

Putin's pragmatic approach has seen him reach out to Israel as well as Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Power play

With IS now largely vanquished from both Iraq and Syria, Putin has other regional considerations to focus on.

One is Russian oil giant Rosneft's major gas deal with Iraqi-Kurdistan, where Russia is rumoured to have had a covert hand in a recent, controversial independence referendum.

This may also lead Russia to lean towards a closer alliance with the Kurdish leadership there, which is in turn allied with Israel.

Jewish family in Damascus, circa 1880 [Getty]

Current disillusionment amongst Iraqi-Kurds with the US gives Putin - the geopolitical chess grandmaster - an opening for further strengthening political ties.

Along with this, Putin appears to have painstakingly crafted his status as a figurehead amongst the global evangelical Christian Right. 

He has become a bedrock of the politically powerful US pro-Israel lobby and the country's influential so-called alt-right movement.

Putin's comments with the clergy earlirer this month saw particular focus on support for Syria's Christian and Jewish communities, while mentioning the country's Muslim-Sunni majority only in passing.

This might suggest that after defeating IS, Moscow's svengali might prioritise his alliance with Tel Aviv - on the Syria issue at least - over Russia's relationship with Tehran.

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