Tom Gross Mideast Media Analysis

In the dead of night, with torches that burned at least 3,600 degrees hot

July 15, 2018

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, revealing the Iranian nuclear documents to the world in April




[Note by Tom Gross]

The Israeli intelligence agency the Mossad has, in a rare move, granted exclusive access to reporters from three newspapers, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, to view key documents taken earlier this year from a top secret Iranian nuclear weapons facility.

Below are the New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles, which will appear tomorrow in the papers’ print editions.

As the New York Times article says:

“The Iranian papers repeatedly mention a specific substance used for making neutron initiators: uranium deuteride. Experts say it has no civil or military use other than making nuclear arms, and is known to have been used for that purpose by China and Pakistan. The initiator appears to be one of the key technologies that A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear expert who ran a black market in atomic goods, sold to Iran, North Korea and other nations.”


The documents detailed the challenges of integrating a nuclear weapon into a warhead for the Shahab-3, an Iranian missile.

David Albright, a former inspector who runs the Institute for Science and International Security, told the New York Times that the documents contained “great information.”



The New York Times adds:

“The Mossad agents moving in on a warehouse in a drab commercial district of Tehran knew exactly how much time they had to disable the alarms, break through two doors, cut through dozens of giant safes and get out of the city with a half-ton of secret materials: six hours and 29 minutes…

“Fewer than two dozen agents took part in the break-in. Fearing that some of them would be caught, the Israelis removed the materials on several different routes.”



How Israel, in Dark of Night, Torched Its Way to Iran’s Nuclear Secrets
By David E. Sanger and Ronen Bergman
New York Times
July 15, 2018 12:00 p.m. ET

TEL AVIV — The Mossad agents moving in on a warehouse in a drab commercial district of Tehran knew exactly how much time they had to disable the alarms, break through two doors, cut through dozens of giant safes and get out of the city with a half-ton of secret materials: six hours and 29 minutes.

The morning shift of Iranian guards would arrive around 7 a.m., a year of surveillance of the warehouse by the Israeli spy agency had revealed, and the agents were under orders to leave before 5 a.m. to have enough time to escape. Once the Iranian custodians arrived, it would be instantly clear that someone had stolen much of the country’s clandestine nuclear archive, documenting years of work on atomic weapons, warhead designs and production plans.

The agents arrived that night, Jan. 31, with torches that burned at least 3,600 degrees, hot enough, as they knew from intelligence collected during the planning of the operation, to cut through the 32 Iranian-made safes. But they left many untouched, going first for the ones containing the black binders, which contained the most critical designs. When time was up, they fled for the border, hauling 50,000 pages and 163 compact discs of memos, videos and plans.

In late April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the results of the heist, after giving President Trump a private briefing at the White House. He said it was another reason Mr. Trump should abandon the 2015 nuclear deal, arguing that the documents proved Iranian deception and an intent to resume bomb production. A few days later, Mr. Trump followed through on his longstanding threat to pull out of the accord — a move that continues to strain relations between the United States and European allies.

Last week, at the invitation of the Israeli government, three reporters, including one from The New York Times, were shown key documents from the trove. Many confirmed what inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, in report after report, had suspected: Despite Iranian insistence that its program was for peaceful purposes, the country had worked in the past to systematically assemble everything it needed to produce atomic weapons.

“It’s quite good,” Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer and former inspector for the agency, said in Vienna, after being shown some of the fruits of the document theft. “The papers show these guys were working on nuclear bombs.”

There is no way to independently confirm the authenticity of the documents, most of which were at least 15 years old, dating from the time when an effort called Project Amad was ordered halted and some of the nuclear work moved deeper under cover. The Israelis handpicked the documents shown to the reporters, meaning that exculpatory material could have been left out. They said some material had been withheld to avoid providing intelligence to others seeking to make weapons.

The Iranians have maintained that the entire trove is fraudulent — another elaborate scheme by the Israelis to get sanctions reimposed on the country. But American and British intelligence officials, after their own review, which included comparing the documents to some they had previously obtained from spies and defectors, said they believed it was genuine.

From what the Israelis showed to the reporters, who were also from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, in a secure intelligence facility, a few things are clear.

The Iranian program to build a nuclear weapon was almost certainly larger, more sophisticated and better organized than most suspected in 2003, when Project Amad was declared ended, according to outside nuclear experts consulted by The Times. Iran had foreign help, though Israeli officials held back any documents indicating where it came from. Much was clearly from Pakistan, but officials said other foreign experts were also involved — though they may not have been working for their governments.

The documents detailed the challenges of integrating a nuclear weapon into a warhead for the Shahab-3, an Iranian missile. One document proposed sites for possible underground nuclear tests, and described plans to build an initial batch of five weapons. None were built, possibly because the Iranians feared being caught, or because a campaign by American and Israeli intelligence agencies to sabotage the effort, with cyberattacks and disclosures of key facilities, took its toll.

David Albright, a former inspector who runs the Institute for Science and International Security, said in an interview that the documents contained “great information.”

“Iran conducted many more high-explosive tests related to nuclear weapons development than previously known,” he told Congress last month.

But the archive also shows that after a burst of activity, a political mandate delivered at the end of 2003 slowed the program dramatically, just as American officials had concluded in a 2007 intelligence report.

Israel has long claimed that the program continued after 2003, and some documents show senior officials in the Iranian program — including two who were later assassinated, presumably by Israeli agents — debating how to split it into overt and covert elements.

One of the scientists warned that work on neutrons that create the chain reaction for a nuclear explosion must be hidden. “‘Neutrons’ research could not be considered ‘overt’ and needs to be concealed,” his notes read. “We cannot excuse such activities as defensive. Neutron activities are sensitive, and we have no explanation for them.” That caution, the documents show, came from Masoud Ali Mohammadi, an Iranian nuclear physicist at the University of Tehran, who was assassinated in January 2010.

Mr. Netanyahu argues that the trove proves that the 2015 agreement, with its sunset clauses allowing the Iranians to produce nuclear fuel again after 2030, was naïve. The fact that the Iranians went to such lengths to preserve what they had learned, and hid the archive’s contents from international inspectors in an undeclared site despite an agreement to reveal past research, is evidence of their future intent, he has said.

But the same material could also be interpreted as a strong argument for maintaining and extending the nuclear accord as long as possible. The deal deprived the Iranians of the nuclear fuel they would need to turn the designs into reality.

Former members of the Obama administration, who negotiated the deal, say the archive proves what they had suspected all along: that Iran had advanced fuel capability, warhead designs and a plan to build them rapidly. That was why they negotiated the accord, which forced the country to ship 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country. Iran would never have agreed to a permanent ban, they said.

The warehouse the Israelis penetrated was put into use only after the 2015 accord was reached with the United States, European powers, Russia and China. That pact granted broad rights to the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit suspected nuclear sites, including on military bases.

So the Iranians, Israeli officials said in interviews, systematically went about collecting thousands of pages spread around the country documenting how to build a weapon, how to fit it on a missile and how to detonate it. They consolidated them at the warehouse, in a commercial district with no past relationship to the nuclear program, and far from the declared archives of the Ministry of Defense. There were no round-the-clock guards or anything else that would tip off neighbors, or spies, that something unusual was happening there.

What the Iranians did not know was that the Mossad was documenting the collection effort, filming the moves for two years, since the relocation began in February 2016. Last year, the spies began planning a heist that one senior Israeli intelligence official said bore a strong resemblance to George Clooney’s adventures in “Oceans 11.”

In most Mossad operations, spies aim to penetrate a facility and photograph or copy material without traces. But in this case, the Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, ordered that the material be stolen outright. That would drastically shorten the time that the agents — some, if not all, of them Iranians — spent inside the building. But the Israelis wanted to be able to counter Iranian claims that the material was forged and offer it up for examination by international groups.

Clearly, the Israeli spies had inside help. They had learned which of the 32 safes held the most important information. They watched the habits of the workers. They studied the workings of the alarm system, so that it would appear to be working even though it would not alert anyone when the agents arrived around 10:30 p.m.

For all the cinematics of the raid, the immediate aftermath was absent much drama. There was no chase, said Israeli officials, who would not disclose whether the documents left by land, air or sea — though an escape from the coast, just a few hours’ drive from Tehran, appears the least risky.

Fewer than two dozen agents took part in the break-in. Fearing that some of them would be caught, the Israelis removed the materials on several different routes. At exactly 7 a.m., as the Mossad expected, a guard arrived and discovered that the doors and safes were broken. He sounded the alarm, and the Iranian authorities soon began a nationwide campaign to locate the burglars — an effort that, according to an Israeli official, included “tens of thousands of Iranian security and police personnel.”

The effort yielded nothing. And until Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, the Iranians never said a word in public about what had happened.

Among the most fascinating elements of the archive are pictures taken inside what were once key facilities in Iran, before the equipment was dismantled in anticipation of international inspections. One set of photos taken by the Iranians appears to show a giant metal chamber built to conduct high-explosive experiments, in a building at Parchin, a military base near Tehran.

Intelligence agencies had long suspected nuclear activity at the Parchin site, and Iran had refused to allow international inspectors in, saying that as a military base, it was off limits to inspectors and not part of any nuclear experiments.

By the time the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, was finally permitted to visit the site in 2015, it was empty, though the agency’s report indicated that it looked as if equipment had been removed. The photos indicate that is exactly what happened: They show a large chamber that nuclear experts say is tailor-made for the kind of experimental activity that the international inspectors were looking for.

It was part of a larger, previously known effort: Satellite photographs show that Parchin was so sanitized before the inspectors’ arrival that tons of soil in the area had been removed, to eliminate any traces of nuclear contamination.

The chamber appears to be part of neutron experiments that strongly point to an effort to build nuclear weapons. Nuclear explosions start when fast-moving particles known as neutrons split atoms of nuclear fuel in two, producing chain reactions that release more neutrons and enormous bursts of energy. At the core of an atom bomb, a device known as a neutron initiator — or sometimes a spark plug — creates the initial wave of speeding neutrons.

The Iranian papers repeatedly mention a specific substance used for making neutron initiators: uranium deuteride. Experts say it has no civil or military use other than making nuclear arms, and is known to have been used for that purpose by China and Pakistan. The initiator appears to be one of the key technologies that A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear expert who ran a black market in atomic goods, sold to Iran, North Korea and other nations.

(William J. Broad contributed reporting from New York.)



Inside Israel’s Raid to Seize Nuclear Documents in Iran
Agents infiltrated Tehran warehouse, extracted trove including partial warhead designs, officials say
By Gerald F. Seib
The Wall Street Journal
July 15, 2018 12:00 p.m. ET

TEL AVIV—Israeli agents covertly extracted documents detailing Iran’s nuclear program in a dramatic 6½-hour operation in Tehran in January, removing a trove of materials that included partial designs for a nuclear warhead, senior Israeli intelligence officials said.

The Israeli team secretly reached the warehouse holding the materials and broke in during a tight time window when it knew the building would be unguarded, the officials said. To avoid drawing attention to the nondescript facility, Iran hadn’t posted full-time guards, they said, but rather relied on alarm systems that the Israeli agents disabled.

The Israeli operation was first revealed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an April press conference in which he declared that the stolen documents proved Iran had lied for years in claiming it didn’t have a nuclear-weapons program.

In a lengthy briefing at a security facility here last week, senior Israeli intelligence officials disclosed additional details about the operation. Those include specifics on how the documents were removed from Iran; the existence within the documents of the warhead designs, for which Israel said Iran got unspecified foreign assistance; the operation of a secret explosives-testing facility that international inspectors had long searched for in vain; and a scramble by Iranian officials to keep their nuclear program alive after international inspectors concluded it had been suspended.

It is impossible to verify Israel’s claims about the documents, which Iranian officials dismissed in April as an “orchestrated play” designed to turn the Trump administration against the agreement President Barack Obama and other world leaders negotiated to curb Iran’s nuclear activities. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the accord in May.

Alireza Miryousefi, a minister-counselor at Iran’s U.N. mission,said in response to the new allegations: “Iran has always been clear that creating indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction is against what we stand for as a country and the notion that Iran would abandon any kind of sensitive information in some random warehouse in Tehran is laughably absurd. It’s almost as if they are trying to see what outlandish claims they can get a Western audience to believe.”

The Israeli assertions about the documents track, and often repeat, revelations and assumptions made previously by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Israelis said that Mr. Trump was briefed on the materials in Washington early this year, and that the documents now have been shared with the IAEA.

The Israeli officials said the seeds for the operation were planted when they received intelligence in 2016 that Iran had decided to consolidate and then hide away documents detailing its past nuclear activities, in the wake of its agreement with the U.S. and five other world powers that stopped it uranium-enrichment activities. Israel tracked the movement of the documents until January 2017, when they were moved into the warehouse on the southern outskirts of Tehran, the officials said.

Israel then began planning to steal the trove, in an operation that one official likened to the casino heist in the movie “Ocean’s Eleven.” The officials worried along the way that Iran might again move them to avoid discovery.

Upon entering the warehouse, the Israeli agents found two large containers housing 32 safes, the officials said. Israel had intelligence steering the agents to focus their efforts on specific safes.

The officials declined to say precisely how the agents broke into the safes, or the route they then used to exit Iran. They said the stash is enormous, running to some 50,000 pages of printed material, plus 183 computer disks with additional files.

Israeli officials acknowledge that the documents are dated; much of the activity they allegedly chronicle occurred before 2003. That is when Iran disclosed and appeared to halt much of its known nuclear research in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush’s designation of Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” which led to speculation Iran might be next on the American hit list.

Moreover, much of the activity the documents chronicle already was disclosed or suggested in IAEA reports in 2011 and 2015.

But Israeli officials contend that the documents are significant in two respects: They show that Iran’s weapons-related activities advanced further than previously realized, the officials asserted, and that they substantiate previous suspicions that Iran shifted some of those activities into new, disguised channels so they could continue well after 2003.

In particular, the Israeli intelligence officials showed documents indicating that Iranian nuclear experts, after shutting down a nuclear research program known by the code name AMAD in 2003, moved by early September of that year to shift many of its activities into the newly formed Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research.

Iranian nuclear scientists, two of whom later were assassinated under mysterious circumstances, are quoted in one document discussing the need to distinguish between “overt” nuclear research activities, which could continue because they could be shown to have peaceful purposes, and “covert” activities that had to be hidden because they could only be attributed to a nuclear-weapons program.

A series of other documents and photos purportedly involve one particularly sensitive Iranian facility, within a military complex known as Parchin, which the IAEA long suspected housed a firing chamber used to test explosives that could be used to ignite a nuclear explosion.

When the IAEA finally gained access to the facility in 2015, it found no such chamber, but said extensive demolition and refurbishing of the site had seriously undermined the agency’s ability to determine whether such a chamber had been there.

The new materials include more than a dozen photographs of what Israeli intelligence officials said was the explosives chamber at Parchin, as well as reports on experiments conducted there.

Israeli officials said they hope the disclosure of the new details will prompt the IAEA to demand new inspections of sites in Iran and draw out further explanations of the program’s parameters from Iranian officials.


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Fate of Iran's threat to Israel and Arabs may rest with Trump-Putin Helsinki summit

July 13, 2018


Israeli PM Netanyahu shakes hands with Chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces Valery Gerasimov at the Kremlin in Moscow on Wednesday, July 11, 2018; and above, Netanyahu holding his third meeting with Putin this year, on Wednesday. Netanyahu appears to be brokering a deal between Trump and Putin over Syria in the run-up to Monday’s Helsinki summit.


Iran’s Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri and other senior officers on the front line overseeing the carpet bombing of Aleppo, Syria, October 2017



[Note by Tom Gross]

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to hold his third one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin in six months, and his ninth in recent years.

The talks were held in the run up to the forthcoming Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki, amid rumors that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have jointly helped to broker a deal in which Russia would force out many of the tens of thousands of Iranian-controlled forces now occupying Syria (and threatening Israel and the entire Arab world), in return for President Trump agreeing to lift some of the sanctions the US placed on Russia following Russia’s intervention to support ethnic Russian separatist rebels in Russian-populated eastern Ukraine.

Such a deal has been rumored in the Israeli and Arab press for some time (and I have also touched upon it in these dispatches), but on Tuesday the New Yorker magazine became the first prominent western publication to outline in detail the proposed deal.

The New Yorker article was written by the well-informed Adam Entous, formerly national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, who has also worked for the Washington Post.



Tom Gross adds:

Not mentioned in The New Yorker report, however, is that it is highly unlikely Israel would make such an offer to Russia without prior US agreement, and it is likely that Netanyahu is acting as intermediary at the request of the Americans.

It is also possible, or likely (and I say this based on my own private meetings with Israeli, American and Saudi officials over the last couple of years), that Netanyahu has agreed to make major Israeli concessions as part of the forthcoming Trump Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, and the Saudis and Gulf Arabs have agreed to apply pressure on the Palestinian Authority to make concessions, as part of their seeking American help to get the Russians to reduce the Iranian threat in the region.

Russia has signaled since 2015 that it would be interested in doing such a deal with the West to limit Iran in Syria, but the Obama administration chose instead to engage diplomatically with Iran and even befriend the Iranian regime. The Trump administration is much more aligned with Israeli and Arab views about the Iranian threat to the whole Middle East, and is more amenable to such a deal with Russia.

Iranian Shia forces are now so dominant in Syria, however, after they have helped push millions of Sunni Syrians out of the country and into Europe and neighboring countries in recent years, that it is not clear Russia has the military strength to force the Iranians out. Last week, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that expecting Iran to leave Syria altogether was “unrealistic.”

Haaretz also notes (article below) that it won’t be so easy to enforce such a deal:

“Already, there are signs that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militia fighters are shedding their uniforms to mix in with Syrian Army units in the battles taking place in the south.”



The New York Times reported yesterday evening (article below):

It was not the deal he was hoping for, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel left Moscow on Thursday saying he had won an important commitment from President Vladimir Putin.

Israel, he said, did not object to President Bashar al-Assad’s regaining control over all of Syria, a vital Russian objective, and Russia had pushed Iranian and allied Shiite forces “tens of kilometers” away from the Israeli border.

Mr. Netanyahu’s suggestion of progress in talks with Mr. Putin came at a crucial moment: Syrian forces backed by Russia and Iran are laying siege to a rebel-controlled pocket of southwestern Syria, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing toward Jordanian and Israeli territory…

Adding to the urgency is a summit meeting on Monday between Mr. Putin and President Trump in Helsinki, where Iran and Syria are expected to be on the agenda. Mr. Netanyahu moved up his meeting in Moscow by several days to make a last pitch to Mr. Putin before the meeting…

But a commitment to keep Iranian forces tens of kilometers from Israel was a far cry from ejecting them completely from Syria, which Mr. Netanyahu has been lobbying Mr. Putin to do. And even that commitment was not confirmed by Russian officials.

Israel has little stomach for Mr. Assad’s regaining full control of Syria: One senior government official likened it to “swallowing a poisoned frog,” given that Mr. Assad had gassed his own people.



In a large-scale humanitarian mission, the Israeli army continues to provide food, water, clothing, baby formula, diapers and medical supplies to tens of thousands of Syrian civilians who have sought refuge on the Israeli border in recent days as they flee the ongoing Iranian and Russian-led assault on them in southern Syria.

Hundreds of injured Syrians have been taken into Israel for treatment in Israeli hospitals, adding to the thousands of other injured Syrians who have been treated at Israeli government expense in Israeli hospitals in recent years.

-- Tom Gross


1. “Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati officials privately pushed for Trump to strike a ‘grand bargain’ with Putin” (By Adam Entous, New Yorker, July 9, 2018)
2. “Remove Iran from Syria for lifting of U.S. sanctions on Russia” (By Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz, July 11, 2018)
3. “Can Israel really trust Russia to remove Iranian forces from Syria?” (By Amos Harel, Haaretz, July 13, 2018)
4. “Putin notes positive development of Russian-Israeli relations” (Tass News agency, Moscow, July 11, 2018)
5. “Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin” (Israeli PM office, July 11, 2018)
6. “Netanyahu says Putin agreed to restrain Iran in Syria” (By David Halbfinger, New York Times, July 13, 2018)
7. “Hezbollah reportedly commanding Syrian fighters near Israeli border - Exposing Limits of Israeli and U.S. Policy” (Reuters, July 5, 2018)




Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati Officials Privately Pushed for Trump to Strike a “Grand Bargain” with Putin
By Adam Entous
New Yorker
July 9, 2018

During a private meeting shortly before the November, 2016, election, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, floated to a longtime American interlocutor what sounded, at the time, like an unlikely grand bargain. The Emirati leader told the American that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, might be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Current and former U.S. officials said that bin Zayed, known as M.B.Z., was not the only leader in the region who favored rapprochement between the former Cold War adversaries. While America’s closest allies in Europe viewed with a sense of dread Trump’s interest in partnering with Putin, three countries that enjoyed unparallelled influence with the incoming Administration—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.—privately embraced the goal. Officials from the three countries have repeatedly encouraged their American counterparts to consider ending the Ukraine-related sanctions in return for Putin’s help in removing Iranian forces from Syria.

Experts say that such a deal would be unworkable, even if Trump were interested. They say Putin has neither the interest nor the ability to pressure Iranian forces to leave Syria. Administration officials have said that Syria and Ukraine will be among the topics that Trump and Putin will discuss at their summit in Helsinki on July 16th. White House officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his F.B.I. team, tasked with probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, have been investigating whether the U.A.E. facilitated contacts between Trump’s team and Russian officials and sought to influence U.S. politics. Nine days before Trump’s Inauguration, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a confidant of Steve Bannon, met at M.B.Z.’s resort in the Seychelles with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, whom the Emiratis used as a go-between with Putin. (An April, 2017, Washington Post story that I co-wrote revealed the Indian Ocean encounter and stated that “the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.”)

Mueller’s team has also focussed on Trump transition-team meetings in December, 2016, that involved Emirati and Russian officials. One, at a New York hotel, was attended by M.B.Z., and another, at Trump Tower, was attended by Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s Ambassador in Washington. During the December 1, 2016, meeting between Kislyak and Trump’s transition team, both sides wanted to discuss the conflict in Syria, and the Russian Ambassador proposed arranging a conversation between Michael Flynn, the incoming national-security adviser, and people he referred to as his “generals,” according to congressional testimony by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. To prevent intelligence agencies from eavesdropping on the conversation, Kislyak proposed using a “secure line,” prompting Kushner to suggest using the secure communications gear housed at the Russian Embassy in Washington.

M.B.Z. is regarded as one of the Middle East’s strategic thinkers. More than other Arab leaders of his generation, he hails from the school of Realpolitik. During the Obama Administration, M.B.Z. sought to establish closer ties between the U.A.E. and Putin, in the hope of encouraging Moscow to scale back its partnership with Iran, particularly in Syria. (Much like Israel, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia consider Iran their biggest strategic threat. They also lacked trust in President Obama.)

As an inducement for Putin to partner with Gulf states rather than Iran, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia started making billions of dollars in investments in Russia and convening high-level meetings in Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and the Seychelles.

It is unclear whether M.B.Z.’s pre-election proposal came from Putin himself or one of his confidants, or whether the Emirati leader came up with the idea. But the comment suggested that M.B.Z. believed that turning Putin against Iran would require sanctions relief for Moscow, a concession that required the support of the American President. If Hillary Clinton had won the election, the idea of accepting Russian aggression in Ukraine would have been a nonstarter, current and former U.S. officials told me. But Trump promised a different approach.

Israeli officials lobbied for rapprochement between Washington and Moscow soon after Trump’s election victory. In a private meeting during the transition, Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States and one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants, said that the Israeli government was encouraging the incoming Trump Administration to coöperate more closely with Putin, starting in Syria, with the hope of convincing Moscow to push the Iranians to leave the country, an attendee told me.

Like M.B.Z., Netanyahu made courting Putin a priority, particularly after Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015. The Israeli leader wanted to insure that Israeli forces could continue to access Syrian airspace, which the Russians partially controlled, to prevent the deployment of advanced weapons systems by Iran and its proxies that could threaten the Jewish state. A senior Israeli official declined to comment on Dermer’s message but said that “Israel does believe it is possible to get a U.S.-Russian agreement in Syria that would push the Iranians out,” and that doing so “could be the beginning of an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations over all.”

Separately, a former U.S. official recalled having a conversation after Trump’s Inauguration with an Israeli Cabinet minister with close ties to Netanyahu in which the minister pitched the American on the idea of “trading Ukraine for Syria.” The former official told me, “You can understand why Russia’s help with Syria is a far higher priority for Israel than pushing back on Russian aggression in Ukraine. But I considered it a major stretch for Israel to try to convince the United States that U.S. interests are well served by looking the other way at Russian aggression in Ukraine. Of course, Trump may disagree for his own reasons.”

After Trump took office, the idea was raised again, by Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the U.A.E., during a private March, 2017, dinner that included several other guests. “Their message was ‘Why don’t we lift the Ukrainian sanctions on Russia in exchange for getting the Russians to push Iran out of Syria,’ ” an attendee recalled the foreign ministers saying. A senior U.A.E. official said that he did not recall the discussion. The dinner attendee told me, “It wasn’t a trial balloon. They were trying to socialize the idea.”

The timing, however, could not have been worse politically, current and former U.S. officials said. In addition to the looming Mueller investigation, members of Congress were pushing at the time to expand sanctions against Russia, not reduce them. Trump told aides that he was frustrated that he could not make progress because of political opposition in Washington. The Americans who heard the Israeli, Emirati, and Saudi pitches in late 2016 and early 2017 assumed that the idea was dead. But ahead of the Helsinki summit, Trump started making statements that suggested he could be open to making a deal with Putin after all.

On June 8th, Trump called for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of Seven industrial nations. (Russia was expelled four years ago, after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.) Then, during a dinner at the G-7 summit in Canada, Trump reportedly said that Crimea was Russian because the people who lived there spoke Russian. Several weeks later, when asked whether reports that he would drop Washington’s long-standing opposition to the annexation of Crimea were true, Trump responded, “We’re going to have to see.”



Netanyahu May Offer Putin: Remove Iran From Syria for Lifting of U.S. Sanctions on Russia
Israel and the Saudis pushed for Trump-Putin deal, The New Yorker reports. Netanyahu could try and sell this idea to Putin, but can Moscow deliver the goods?
By Zvi Bar’el
July 11, 2018

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday will be devoted mainly to Israel’s demand that all Iranian forces leave Syria – a demand that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already deemed completely unrealistic.

Russia has told Israel on several occasions that it can’t make Iran leave Syria completely; the most it can do is try to get Iranian forces and Iranian-affiliated militias, including Hezbollah, to move a significant distance away from the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights. But Russia isn’t even managing to keep its promise to secure a partial withdrawal of Iranian forces.

According to reports from Syria, even during the Syrian army’s conquest of the Daraa district over the past few days, Iranian officers and observers and Hezbollah fighters participated alongside the Syrian troops. It also turns out that the Syrian army – which now controls most of the border between Syria and Jordan, including the Naseeb border crossing – is entering rebel-controlled areas in violation of an agreement it reached just last week.

Thus it’s not clear where Israel’s assessment, or faith, about Russia’s ability to oust Iran comes from. Nevertheless, Israel seems to have maintained this assessment for at least the last two years, since before Donald Trump was elected U.S. president and even more so afterward.

The American magazine The New Yorker revealed on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel had suggested to Trump that America offer to cancel the sanctions it imposed on Russia four years ago, following Russia’s war in Ukraine and occupation of the Crimean peninsula, in exchange for Russian action to remove Iranian forces from Syria. Reporter Adam Entous wrote that shortly before the U.S. elections in 2016, the UAE’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, met with an American mediator and told him Putin might be interested in solving the Syrian crisis in exchange for an end to sanctions on Russia.

Bin Zayed, the reporter said, wasn’t the only one pushing this idea. Senior Israeli and Saudi officials also did so in conversations with senior American officials.

In April 2017, Entous reported in the Washington Post that Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, had met with Erik Prince at a resort in the Seychelles belonging to Bin Zayed. Prince is the founder of Blackwater, a private military company which worked in Iraq and was suspected of committing crimes there, but he’s also close to Steve Bannon, who was then Trump’s closest adviser.

The meeting was called to discuss whether Russia would be willing to curtail its ties with Iran, including its cooperation with Iran in Syria, in exchange for American concessions on sanctions. Later, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also invested billions of dollars in projects in Syria to encourage Putin to sever ties with Iran.

Entous said he doesn’t know whether the proposal came from Putin himself, one of his aides, or the UAE crown prince.

After Trump’s election, during the transition period before he took office, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer said during a private meeting that Israel was encouraging cooperation between Trump and Putin in the hopes of convincing Russia to push the Iranians out of Syria, a person present at the meeting told Entous.

“Israel does believe it is possible to get a U.S.-Russian agreement in Syria that would push the Iranians out,” a senior Israeli official told Entous, adding that doing so “could be the beginning of an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations over all.”

An American official who spoke with an Israeli minister close to Netanyahu told the New Yorker that the minister had tried to sell him on the idea of “trading Ukraine for Syria” – canceling sanctions on Russia in exchange for Iran’s removal from Syria. The Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers also marketed this idea.

At a private dinner with senior American officials, the two foreign ministers ask why America didn’t cancel the sanctions on Russia in exchange for Iran’s ouster. “It wasn’t a trial balloon. They were trying to socialize the idea,” a person present at the dinner told Entous.

Would Trump be willing to agree to such a deal? According to Entous’ sources, even if he were, Russia isn’t capable of supplying the goods. Moreover, at a time when Trump is under investigation for his ties to Russia before the election, even raising the idea could undermine his defense.

It’s not inconceivable that Netanyahu will try to sell this idea to Putin. Perhaps the idea will even arise at Putin’s summit meeting with Trump on July 16. But before anyone entertains the idea of an international persuasion campaign, it’s worth considering what Iran itself is willing to do.

Diplomatic common sense says that Iran would be willing to make concessions in Syria in exchange for cancelation of the new sanctions America has imposed on it and reinstatement of the nuclear deal which Trump scrapped. But this logic contradicts the adamant positions of Trump, Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the nuclear deal.

Iran itself has been very clear about its interest in remaining in Syria, just as it still vehemently insists that the nuclear agreement isn’t subject to renegotiation. Thus at this stage, the most Israel can hope for is some kind of Russian plan to enable the Syrian regime to regain control of the Golan without Syrian forces entering the area, alongside Russian coordination with Israel on the status quo after the war ends.



Can Israel Really Trust Russia to Remove Iranian Forces From Syria?
* Fate of Iran’s presence in Syria rests with Trump-Putin meeting
* Israeli official to EU counterparts: Iran nuke deal is dead, and you insist on giving it Advil
By Amos Harel
July 13, 2018

“U.S. News and World Report” magazine this week ranked Israel as the world’s eighth most powerful nation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made sure to mention this to Likud lawmakers at a party meeting. He also pointed out, rightly, that all the countries ranked ahead of Israel have much larger populations.

But strong as it may be, Israel is still just another player on the international playing field – and the Middle East is far from the most important region on the world map at the moment. Strategic developments depend on relations between the world powers that Israel trailed in the rankings: The trade war declared by the Trump administration on China, and U.S. relations with Russia, which will be put to an important test at the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki on Monday.

The critical arena in Netanyahu’s mind remains, as always, the fight against Iran. This battle expanded in the past year from efforts to halt Tehran’s nuclear project to a direct clash with Iranian forces in Syria, with the aim of reducing their presence and influence there.

But even with regard to Iran and Syria, Israel must take broader processes into account. Russia is currently pressing for the completion of the de-escalation plan in Syria. Netanyahu may have influenced its design during his meeting with Putin in Moscow on Wednesday. But what comes next depends on what happens when Putin exerts his nearly magical – perhaps blackmail is part of it? – influence on President Donald Trump.

Putin appears to be seeking a wider deal that, in addition to Syria, would include new understandings in Eastern Europe.

One point being raised by the Russians is their expectation that the West lift the sanctions it imposed following Russian involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The Russian plan in Syria is clear: President Bashar Assad will get full control of most parts of the country, including the Syrian Golan Heights to which his forces will soon return, and Israel will pledge not to interfere. In return, Moscow promises to block Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias’ proximity from the Golan Heights border: Various distances – 40, 60, even 80 kilometers (25, 37 and 50 miles, respectively) – have been mentioned. Netanyahu believes the Russians will keep their word. In a briefing with Israeli journalists in Moscow on Wednesday, he spoke of the process as if it were already underway.

The Israel Defense Forces has also been sounding cautiously optimistic. Distancing the Iranians from the border is seen as being a Russian interest – the war is about to end and Iran has exhausted the benefit it can bring to the Kremlin. Putin is not looking for partners with whom to share the dividends of success. Assad would also probably like to wriggle a little freer of the Iranian embrace.

This forecast minimizes the potential difficulties. Even in an international climate where keeping one’s word is far from the norm, Moscow stands out for its cynicism, and Putin and his spokespeople have been lying for years without batting an eyelid.

Israel won’t be able to easily rely on Russian insistence that the understandings are being upheld. Their enforcement will be especially complicated in the densely populated Damascus region – which is within the range Israel wants the Iranians to be kept out of. Already, there are signs that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militia fighters are shedding their uniforms to mix in with Syrian Army units in the battles taking place in the south.

Above all, even after the series of blows inflicted upon it in Syria, Iran has not relented in its drive for military entrenchment there. Per several of the attacks that have been attributed to Israel by foreign media in the past month – first at Abu Kamal in eastern Syria and then at the T4 airbase near the central Syrian city of Homs – Iran is once again trying to deploy advanced weapons systems in Syria, and Israel is again seemingly taking measures against this.

Most of the attempts to smuggle in weapons systems is done by air. However, the airstrike on the weapons convoy in eastern Syria shows that the Iranians are also often trying to make use of the ground corridor they established after the Americans rid the area of Islamic State forces. If the Russians don’t keep their word, the airstrikes will likely continue.

It’s interesting that since the exchange of blows on February 10 (in which an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli territory and an Israeli F-16 was shot down), no more condemnations have been heard from Moscow. Only a tiny fraction of the measures taken by Israel is made known to the Israeli public and the foreign media. One could cautiously venture that the amount of munitions dropped by the air force in unpublicized missions over the past several years is not far from the amount of munitions it used in Gaza in the summer war of 2014.

For the most part, this effort has proceeded without mishaps or complications. And this is the source of the Israeli satisfaction with the operative results: The Iranian penetration into Syria is limited and Hezbollah has so far not been able to achieve its objective of significantly improving the precision of its rockets in Lebanon.

In the longer term, as Netanyahu told Putin at their meeting, Israel still wants to see all the Iranian advisers and Shi’ite fighters entirely removed from Syria – since even weapons systems deployed 100 or 200 kilometers from Israel’s border with Syria endanger Israel’s security.

Israel is not making a similar claim against Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal – some of which is stored in southern Lebanon, in violation of UN Resolution 1701 – because it understands that this would be an impossible demand. But in fact, almost 12 years to the day after the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, the top security risk is found in Lebanon, not Syria, where the Iranians are in a clearly inferior position from a security standpoint.

Iran is also engaged in a holding action on its other front. Right now, things appear to be going badly for its nuclear program. A senior Israeli official who recently met with visiting European Union representatives told them that European efforts to keep the nuclear accord with Iran alive following the Americans’ withdrawal from it in May are doomed.

“There’s a corpse in the room, the Vienna agreement, and you want to give it Advil and persist in believing it will come back to life,” the Israeli said. The visitors pointed out that the European partners to the agreement – Great Britain, France and Germany – have all decided to stick to its framework. Their host argued that the market will dictate the outcome and the major corporations are already voting with their feet and fleeing Iran, for fear of being subjected to U.S. sanctions.

Israeli defense officials are reacting positively to the 12-point paper issued by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, outlining the administration’s policy against Iran. The shift in American strategy is also reflected in the understandings in Washington regarding Syria. In previous years, the Obama administration and then the Trump administration concentrated their efforts in Syria and Iraq on fighting ISIS and various Al-Qaida affiliates. This effort enabled the Assad regime and the Russians to free up forces and aircraft to attack the less extreme rebel groups, and later to step into part of the vacuum left behind when ISIS fled Syria. Now the Americans are attempting to take a more balanced approach and to increase coordination with Israel.

Pompeo, who visited the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, spoke in a television interview of his main objective: forming a regional coalition to counter Tehran. He accused Iran of using its embassies in Europe as terrorism bases, and said an Iranian attempt to plant a bomb at a convention of regime opponents in Paris had been foiled.

The U.S. secretary of state singled out Gen. Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force. The general is causing trouble in Syria and Iraq, and he and his organization must be made to pay a higher price for it, said Pompeo.

Asked about the possibility that the U.S. and Israeli efforts will ultimately help to bring about regime change in Iran, Israeli defense officials were wary of making any such predictions.

The protests in Iran in recent months are perceived as authentic and of significant magnitude. The complaint that the country is investing money it does not have abroad at the expense of its own citizens ($12 to 14 billion alone to aid the Assad regime over the last seven years) is increasingly gaining public sympathy in Iran. But intelligence officials stress there is no real way to predict the outcome of a popular rebellion, and note that the Iranian authorities already showed great skill (and brutality) in suppressing the failed Green Movement of 2009.

Israeli politicians appear less skeptical. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have been making direct appeals to the Iranian people in recent weeks via social media, denouncing the Iranian regime. And Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, speaking at a conference of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs this week, asserted that “the economic pressure on Iran could lead the regime to collapse within a year.


(Tom Gross: Russian and Israeli reports of Wednesday’s Putin-Netanyahu meeting: Putin focuses on good relations, while Netanyahu focuses on the Iranian threat on Israel’s border.)


Putin notes positive development of Russian-Israeli relations
The Russian president hailed bilateral relations as positive
Tass News agency, Moscow
July 11, 2018, 20:36

MOSCOW, July 11. /TASS/. Relations between Russia and Israel are developing in the economic, political and military spheres, as well as in the area of humanitarian cooperation, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Our bilateral relations are developing rather positively,” Putin said, noting that the indicators of economic cooperation are positive. “It concerns our cooperation not just in the sphere of economy, but in the political area as well. Relations between the defense departments are at a high level as well,” the Russian president went on.

“This also concerns the humanitarian sphere.”



(Press release communicated by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Media Adviser)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, today (Wednesday, 11 July 2018), at the Kremlin in Moscow, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and made the following remarks at the start of the meeting:

“I would like to compliment you on the very successful World Cup that Russia is organizing. The entire world is watching with great interest, including us in Israel, and I must say I am as well. So thank you for the invitation to watch the game later this evening.

Of course you mentioned the moving parade in honor of the victory over the Nazis, which was a great event that made an impression in Israel and I think around the Jewish world.

Every visit such as this is an opportunity for us to work together to try to stabilize the situation in our region, increase security and increase stability.

It is clear that our focus is on Syria and Iran. Our view that Iran needs to leave Syria is well-known; it is not new to you.

Several hours ago a Syrian UAV penetrated Israel’s airspace. We shot it down and we will continue to take strong action against any trickle [of fire] and any infiltration into Israel’s airspace or territory. We expect that everyone will respect this sovereignty and that Syria will strictly abide by the [1974] Separation of Forces Agreement.

The cooperation between us is a central component in preventing a conflagration and deterioration of these and other situations; therefore, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to discuss these matters and, of course, all other issues. Truly, thank you.”



Netanyahu Says Putin Agreed to Restrain Iran in Syria
By David Halbfinger
The New York Times
July 13, 2018

JERUSALEM — It was not the deal he was hoping for, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel left Moscow on Thursday saying he had won an important commitment from President Vladimir Putin.

Israel, he said, did not object to President Bashar al-Assad’s regaining control over all of Syria, a vital Russian objective, and Russia had pushed Iranian and allied Shiite forces “tens of kilometers” away from the Israeli border.

Mr. Netanyahu’s suggestion of progress in talks with Mr. Putin came at a crucial moment: Syrian forces backed by Russia and Iran are laying siege to a rebel-controlled pocket of southwestern Syria, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing toward Jordanian and Israeli territory.

With Syrian government forces raising the national flag on Thursday over Dara’a, birthplace of the revolt against Mr. Assad, the endgame of the Syrian civil war seemed to be fast approaching. And with it, time could be running out for Israel to dislodge Iran from Syria by diplomatic means.

Adding to the urgency is a summit meeting on Monday between Mr. Putin and President Trump in Helsinki, where Iran and Syria are expected to be on the agenda. Mr. Netanyahu moved up his meeting in Moscow by several days to make a last pitch to Mr. Putin before the meeting.

But a commitment to keep Iranian forces tens of kilometers from Israel was a far cry from ejecting them completely from Syria, which Mr. Netanyahu has been lobbying Mr. Putin to do. And even that commitment was not confirmed by Russian officials.

“We are aware of your concerns,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Netanyahu, the Kremlin said. Then the two leaders met privately.

On Thursday, Mr. Putin met with a top Iranian foreign policy official, Ali Akbar Velayati, leading to much speculation in Israel and abroad, but neither country provided public details of that discussion.

Israel has largely stayed out of Syria’s civil war but has carried on a shadow war in Syria with Iran, which has taken advantage of the chaos to build a military infrastructure in Syria.

But it is unclear how much leverage Israel has to press its anti-Iran agenda diplomatically.

Israel has little stomach for Mr. Assad’s regaining full control of Syria: One senior government official likened it to “swallowing a poisoned frog,” given that Mr. Assad had gassed his own people.

So a willingness to accept Mr. Assad’s resumption of control over all of Syria is no small concession, said Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“Nobody can these days destabilize the Assad regime,” he said. “The only one who can do it is Israel. And the Russians know that very well. So to get a commitment from Israel not to destabilize Syria is something that Russia will value very much.”

Mr. Assad, while an avowed enemy of Israel, has taken pains to avoid a battle with Israel and has maintained the truce that has held since 1974.

“We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime,” Mr. Netanyahu said, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “For 40 years, not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.”

But Israel’s threats — to interfere with Mr. Assad’s efforts to recapture southwestern Syria, or to retaliate against Iranian forces’ entrenchment in Syria with strikes against Iranian and Syrian government positions — are getting old, said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at International Crisis Group: “Moscow tolerated it for awhile, but they’re unhappy with this as a long-term pattern,” he said.

Even if it agreed with the Israeli position, there are limits to what Russia can do. Russia could be expected to do little more than “communicating with Iran and asking them politely” to move farther from the Israeli border, and its promises would likely be both short-lived and difficult to enforce, Mr. Zalzberg said. “I don’t see Russia as likely to deploy a sizable contingent of its military police in the southwest with some kind of endless duration,” he said.

Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group that advises the Kremlin, said that even if Mr. Putin were to agree to try to oust the Iranians from Syria, “Iran also needs to sign up to this too.”

Pressure can only accomplish so much, Mr. Kortunov said. And besides, he said, “You can move the Iranian forces by 50 or 80 or even 100 kilometers away from the Golan Heights, but if the infrastructure remains there and if this territory is still controlled by Damascus, then it won’t be difficult to bring the Iranian forces back.”

Syrian forces moved a step closer to regaining control of the border region on Thursday, taking over the neighborhood in Dara’a where the uprising that set off the country’s civil war began in 2011. Dara’a is the main city in one of the last remaining rebel-held areas of the country.

Antigovernment activists and a conflict monitor said that the government had not yet driven rebels from the entire city, but that talks were taking place over a surrender deal that would leave the whole city in government hands. As in previous such deals, the rebels were expected to be given the option to disarm and accept the government’s rule or be bussed to rebel-held territory in the northeast.

Seven years into the war, Mr. Assad has consolidated his control over the country’s center and its main population centers, although large amounts of territory remain out of his control. After the battle for Dara’a, the fighting is expected to continue to the west, toward the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, pitting the government and its allies against other rebels and a jihadist group connected to the Islamic State.

While it is unclear how Mr. Assad will bring these areas back under his control, few doubt that he will remain the president of Syria. With that outcome a foregone conclusion, the diplomatic battle has turned to what that Syria will look like.



Hezbollah Reportedly Commanding Syrian Fighters Near Israeli Border - Exposing Limits of Israeli and U.S. Policy

Hezbollah’s role in the offensive near the border with Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights has also defied Israeli demands that Iranian proxies be kept away from its frontier
July 5, 2018

Hezbollah is helping to lead a Russian-backed offensive in southern Syria which has left over 250,000 people displaced, pro-Damascus sources said. The Iranian-backed militia’s continued role in Syria exposes the limits of both Israeli and U.S. policy that hopes Moscow can get Iran and groups it backs out of the country.

Hezbollah’s role in the offensive near the border with Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights has also defied Israeli demands that Iranian proxies be kept away from its frontier - a fault line of the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Hezbollah is a fundamental participant in planning and directing this battle,” a commander in the regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters. “Everyone knows this - the Israeli enemy, friends, and even the Russians.”

Hezbollah’s role includes directing Syrian forces, the commander said. It has also deployed its own elite forces.

But the Iranian-backed group is keeping a lower profile than in past Syria campaigns, acknowledging the risks of Israeli escalation.

A senior official in the regional alliance that backs Assad said Hezbollah was fighting “under the cover” of the Syrian army in the south. A European diplomat said Iranian-backed forces were not thought to be taking part “in strength”.

For Assad, the campaign holds out the prospect of reopening a vital trade artery to Jordan, reestablishing his control over the Golan frontier, and crushing rebels once deemed a threat because of their proximity to Damascus.

The offensive has yet to face resistance from Assad’s Western, Israeli or Arab foes. Washington has told rebels it once backed not to expect intervention. Some have surrendered.

Politically, the campaign has been one of the most complex yet for Assad. Israel has been pressing his Russian allies to keep Iranian-backed forces away from its frontier. Israel also wants them removed from Syria more widely, echoing Washington.

Recent Russian calls for non-Syrian forces to leave the south have been seen as partly directed at Iranian-backed forces.

White House national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday President Donald Trump would discuss Syria with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki this month.

“There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward,” Bolton told CBS News “Face the Nation”.

Seven years into the war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, Assad now commands most of Syria with his allies’ help, though most of the north and a chunk of the east remains out of his hands. The presence of Turkish and U.S. forces in those areas will complicate further gains.

As Assad seeks military victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace, with some 6 million Syrians abroad as refugees and 6.5 million more internally displaced. The southwest offensive has uprooted 270,000 people.

Support from Iran and Hezbollah helped Assad survive rebel advances and plug manpower gaps early on, and then win back territory once Russia’s air force arrived to help in 2015.

Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have also been seen as critical in holding territory. On the ground, Russia has deployed some regular forces, military police and private contractors.

While Iran and Russia have worked closely together, differences have surfaced recently.

Notably, tension flared last month when Russian forces arrived unannounced in an area of Hezbollah deployment near the Lebanese border. The Russians withdrew the next day.

The official in the pro-Assad alliance said the United States appeared to be hoping to “substitute” Iranian influence with Russian influence, but this would be futile. Russia and Iran have an “understanding” in Syria, the official added.

“The battlefield situation in Syria will not be reversed. The regime and its allies have very wide control,” the official said. Assad has said Hezbollah and other allies will stay a long time.

Excluding Iran and Hezbollah from the southwest was one objective of contacts between the United States, Russia, Israel and Jordan that had sought - unsuccessfully - to stave off a government offensive, the European diplomat said.

“I suspect that a few Iranians will not cause the Israelis too much concern, but larger numbers of Iranians or Hezbollah would,” the diplomat said. Israel was “broadly comfortable” with the Syrian army returning to the Golan frontier as long as groups such as Hezbollah stay away.

“I think the Israelis are reasonably comfortable and confident that they can continue to deter and enforce and agree an arrangement that keeps Iran away from the Golan at the moment,” the diplomat added.

The temperature may however rise as the offensive moves from Deraa province towards Quneitra on the Golan, where tensions between Israel and Iran sparked a military confrontation in May. Israel beefed up its tank and artillery deployment on the Golan on Sunday.


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