February 18, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1558

Continued Reports In Arab Media About Russia-Brokered Contacts Between Syria, Israel

February 18, 2021 | By O. Peri*
Russia, Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1558

In the recent weeks, Arab media outlets have been reporting that Russian efforts are underway to promote a normalization agreement between Syria and Israel. The reports claim that Syria and Israel have exchanged messages in this context, and some even claim that representatives of the two countries, including Syrian national security chief 'Ali Mamlouk and former Israeli chief-of-staff Gadi Eisenkot,  met recently at the Khmeimim Russian air base on the Syrian coast. According to the reports, during this meeting the sides clarified their terms for normalization: Israel demanded the withdrawal of Hizbullah and the Iranian and pro-Iranian forces from Syria, while Syria demanded support for President Assad's remaining in power, an end to the sanctions on his regime, and economic aid.

The Assad regime denied the reports, calling them lies spread by countries that support normalization with Israel, aimed at discrediting his regime's unwavering position on Israel and creating an impression that Syria too is seeking normalization.

However, well-known Syrian actor Duraid Lahham, who is identified with the regime and is known for his firm positions against Israel, told CNN Arabic that normalization "would come" and that he does not oppose it as long as it conforms to the terms of the 2002 Arab peace initiative.[1] His remarks may have been uttered with the approval of the regime.

Oppositionist Syrian writers who addressed this issue focused on whether normalization with Israel at the present time would benefit the Assad regime or harm it.

It should be noted that reports of this sort also appeared in some Arab newspapers in the fall of 2020, especially in October. Then too the Syrian regime denied the reports and reiterated its opposition to any agreement with the Israeli enemy.[2]

It should also be noted that Russia is currently mediating between Syria and Israel in some humanitarian issues, including the case of a young woman who crossed the border into Syria[3] and the search for the remains of Israeli soldiers in a cemetery in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus.[4]

This document reviews the recent reports on the alleged diplomatic contacts between Syria and Israel, and reactions by the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition to these reports.

Arab Media: Russia Sponsoring Secret Talks Between Syria And Israel, Aimed At Normalization And Ouster Of Iranian Forces From Syria 

As stated, reports about efforts to promote a Syria-Israel agreement first appeared in October 2020, and again in December of that year. An article published on December 12, 2020 by Lebanese-American journalist Gharida Durgham claimed that Russia had presented the Syrian regime with a proposed deal to settle its conflict with Israel. According to this report, Russia means for Iran to be part of this deal as well, in light of its close relations with the Syria regime. Furthermore, Russia believes that its clout with Iran - due to its arms deals with this country and its central role in determining the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal - will  enable it to pressure Iran to downscale its military presence in Syria, especially in the Damascus area, thus paving the way to a Russia-sponsored Syrian-Israeli-Iranian understanding. Durgham assesses that Russia discussed the proposed deal with Israel before presenting it to the Syrian regime.[5]

On December 21, the liberal Saudi website Elaph reported, citing an unnamed high-ranking Israeli officer, that Syria has been relaying messages to Israel on a possible agreement. According to the  report, "Assad wants to draw closer to the Sunni [Arab] axis so he can pay its debts to Iran and remove it from Syria. He understands that Israel can help him both with the U.S. and with the Gulf and the Sunni axis. He, like the Russians, now regards us [Israelis] as a bridge to the U.S. and to the Gulf and Sunni states. Assad… will not show up to make peace tomorrow. But he is now willing to talk in order to shore up his regime, rejoin the Arab League… and establish a state of non-aggression with Israel. The Golan and other issues will come later… The important point is that there is a chance he will be willing to break up the Iranian axis…"[6]

One month later, on January 21, the Saudi Al-Arabiya network likewise reported, citing a Russian diplomatic source, that contacts between Syria and Israel were underway under the auspices of Russia and with its encouragement.[7] The London-based online daily reported on a deal allegedly presented to Assad by Israel in December 2020 through a third party. According to  the report, under the proposed deal the U.S. and Israel will guarantee the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from northern Syria and the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from  eastern Syria, and agree to the renewal of the Syrian influence in Lebanon. In return, Syria will sign a peace agreement with Israel that will leave the Golan in Israeli hands and guarantee a withdrawal of Hizbullah and the Iranian forces from Syria. The report also states that Assad refused the deal.[8]

The London-based Qatari-owned daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid reported that, during Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Mekdad's visit to Moscow last December, Russia relayed an Israeli proposal under which the Iranian forces would withdraw from southern Syria, and Assad, in return, would receive financial aid to repay his debts to Iran, and a way would be found for him to remain in power with international consent.[9] 

According to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the issue of normalization with Israel was discussed in meetings Russian-Syrian meetings in Moscow and Damascus; representatives of the Assad regime asked what Syria's reward would be, and whether it would include the lifting of the U.S. sanctions on the regime, given that normalization would surely lead to the withdrawal of the Iranians from Syria.[10] 

Reports On Syrian-Israeli Meeting In Russian Khmeimim Air Base

Some of the reports specified that Syrian and Israeli representatives had met in secret on Syrian soil. The Al-Hadath channel, which is part of the Al-Arabiya network, reported in mid-January that Syrian and Israeli delegations had met, under Russian sponsorship, at the Khmeimim Russian air base in northern Syria.  According to the report, this was preceded by meetings in Cyprus at an unspecified date.[11]

In a January 18, 2021 report, the Jusoor research center, based in Turkey and identified with the Syrian opposition, provided further details about the alleged meeting in Khmeimim. The meeting, it claimed, took place in December and was attended by Syrian National Security Bureau head 'Ali Mamlouk and his special advisor for security and strategic affairs, Bassam Hassan; by Israeli former chief-of-staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Mossad officer Ari Ben-Menashe, and by the commander of the Russian forces in Syria, Alexander Chayko. Like the Elaph report from December 2020, this report too listed Syria's alleged demands in return for a deal: the renewal of its relations with the Sunni Arab axis; Syria's reinstatement in the Arab League; financial aid to repay Syria's debt to Iran and enable it to demand Iran's withdrawal from its territory; consent to Assad's continued rule, and a lifting of the sanctions on his regime. The Israelis, for their part, demanded the dissolution of the "resistance axis"; a complete withdrawal of Hizbullah and the foreign militias from Syria; the establishment of a Syrian government half of whose members are from the opposition, and a reorganization of the regime's military and security apparatuses.

The Jusoor research center assessed that this Syrian-Israeli meeting marks the beginning of "a channel that Russia is pushing to establish, and which will probably widen considerably in 2021, because Russia believes that direct relations between the Assad regime and Tel Aviv could  be a life-raft for the regime and could [promote Russia's] future efforts to enlist international support for its [proposed] political solution in Syria." As for the Syrians' potential profit, Jusoor speculated that that "peace with Israel is the ideal solution [for] the Assad regime, allowing it to break out of the diplomatic and economic siege it has been suffering for about a decade and to remain in power for decades more, unless a popular uprising occurs, or some other unforeseen circumstances."[12]  

Syrian Regime: Reports On Contacts With Israel An Attempt To Obscure Our Firm Position Against The Israeli Occupation

As it did in October 2020, the Syrian foreign ministry denied that any contacts with Israel were underway. A ministry source told the official Syrian news agency SANA that "the Syrian Republic firmly denies  the false reports that have been spread by some recruited media regarding Syrian-Israeli meetings in all sorts of places, and clarifies that their publication is a failed attempt by those who finance those newspapers to cast doubt on Syria's principled and unwavering positions on the Israeli occupation…  The forces behind these lies are the same forces that are rushing to normalize [their relations] with this entity and trying to drag the entire region into Zionist-Western pacts, sometimes by sowing alarm and sometimes through enticement. Having  failed [to achieve this], they have now turned to publishing fake news."[13]

In addition, the Syrian state press published articles attacking the Arab media that had published the reports about Syria-Israel contacts. Ahmed Hamada, a political editor at the Al-Thawra daily,  attacked the London-based Saudi Al-Sharq Al-Awsat for quoting the abovementioned report by the Jusoor research center. He wrote: "That distorted [Al-Sharq Al-Awsat] article spread false claims that a Syrian-Israeli meeting had been hosted at Khmeimim Air Base under the auspices of Russia to discuss various issues. The most ironic claim, arousing a mixture of amusement and contempt, is that the matter of Syria's reinstatement in the Arab League was discussed. With whom? With the Israeli entity!! How stupid are the members of that [Jusoor] 'research' center, and the authors of this 'investigative' [Al-Sharq Al-Awsat] article, whose delusions have led them to this level of cheap and reprehensible fabrication and invention, causing them to make up issues that were discussed only in their rotten minds and in their heads empty of anything but treachery!... The authors of this fake article forgot that only a few days ago the Israelis attacked in Deir Al-Zor and Al-Bukamal [the reference is to a January 31, 2021 attack on Syrian forces and pro-Iranian militias in eastern Syria, which reportedly caused some 80 casualties],[14] an attack that came only because Syria is not amenable to filthy normalization [with Israel] and because it has humiliated the leaders of the U.S. and Israel… Therefore, there isn't a single known tactic of lying and  deception, or any other filthy tactic, that the sponsors of the aggression against Syria have not used in order to realize their colonialist goals in Syria. Accordingly, their media and intellectuals have invented lies and spread rumors to distort the facts and draw attention away from the truth about the terror, its supporters and those who are behind it, so as to preoccupy public opinion with ludicrous stories…"[15]   

Al-Thawra columnist 'Abd Al-Rahim Ahmad wrote in a similar vein: "As several Arab regimes rush to normalize relations, for no reward, with the Israeli enemy that is forcefully maintaining its grip on Palestine and the occupied Syrian Golan, some media mouthpieces of these regimes have mobilized to promote normalization and to justify this collapse of moral and human [values] by fabricating reports about Syrian-Israeli meetings, so as to imply that all the Arab countries are taking this path… The forces that are normalizing their relations [with Israel] and who follow the orders of the American administration are unable to make their own decisions and cannot refuse to take this path. [So] they are not in any position to talk about Syria or instruct their media to invent false reports about it, especially considering that, when Damascus did talk with Israel, in Madrid [in 1990] and elsewhere, it did so openly and not in secret, and with one goal in mind: restoring the rights to their owners."[16]

Conflicting Assessments In Syrian Opposition Regarding Regime's Willingness To Normalize Relations With Israel

Several Syrian writers identified with the opposition addressed the question of whether normalization with Israel could benefit the Assad regime at this time. Syrian journalist and researcher Hazem Nahar, who writes for the Lebanese daily Al-Mudun, assessed that the regime will turn to normalization with Israel only if its survival depends on it, and that the regime has not yet reached this point, because at present, normalization with Israel will only mean losing its allies. Nahar wrote: "Is it conceivable that the Syrian regime will opt for normalizing relations with Israel in order to break out of its isolation?... This regime has already taught us that it is capable of making unexpected moves when the external pressures on it increase, or, to be more precise, when it has no choice except to succumb to these pressures… In such extreme cases, Syria may use diplomacy to try and buy time. For example, the regime may express willingness to renew negotiations with Israel, or display some flexibility on the issue of restoring the Golan to Syria, by [agreeing] to a gradual [Israeli withdrawal] over a fairly long time - while leaving itself plenty of room to maneuver so it can evade every commitment. Such a tactic will enable it, as usual, to find a temporarily respite from the pressures until new developments arise.

"Hence, the Syrian regime is unlikely to change its position on Israel and on normalization with it except in the most unusual circumstances, when it is faced with the difficult but clear-cut choice between losing its power and normalizing relations with Israel in order to remain in power… I believe that the regime has not yet come to this point, and perhaps never will… Despite its desire to rebrand itself, at the moment the [Assad] regime can derive no benefit from normalizing relations with Israel; in fact, it will receive no reward and will lose much more than it gains… At present, normalization will only make it more difficult for the regime to reorganize its [power] balances and the regional and international relations that still keep it in power despite its fragility. These are relations in which it is greatly invested, especially with Iran, Hizbullah, the national Arab parties and the Arab left in general. It stands to lose in the  domestic arena as well, since the basis of the continued existence of its ruling [Ba'th] party is still [this party's] stated position on Israel and the Palestinian issue…"[17]

Conversely, Syrian writer Ghazi Dahman assessed that the Syrian regime does stand to gain from an agreement with Israel. Writing in the Al-Arabi Al-Jadid daily, he speculated that the regime wants "a deal similar to the one made by the government of Sudan, [under which Assad] will agree to normalization without preconditions, in return for the opening of doors that are [currently] closed to him. He thinks that the Western countries have trapped themselves in excessive sanctions [against him], and that that their doors are closed [to him] and cannot be opened by means of the previous methods [involving] intelligence cooperation or threats to destabilize Lebanon. Today there is need for a more powerful blow, such as normalization with Israel, in order to break down the walls of isolation around the Assad regime… Assad is betting that the countries of the world will welcome an agreement [with Israel] and open up their coffers to rescue his economy and rebuild everything he has destroyed. [He hopes that] the countries and organizations of the world will forget all the facts of his violent behavior and his madness, and give up their demands to [start] an interim phase [in Syria], [draft] a new constitution and prosecute war criminals [as per the resolutions of the Security Council]… Assad understands that entering into negotiations [will not require him to] meet terms and demands. All he needs to do is agree to normalization and remove the Iranian militias from Syria. Other than this, he is the one who will present a list of demands: for economic aid, a lifting of all the sanctions and maybe also non-interference in Syria's affairs in the future."[18]

* O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], February 12, 2021.

[3], February 17, 2021.

[4], February 4, 2021.

[5], December 20, 2020.

[6], December 21, 2020.

[7], January 21, 2021.

[8], January 19, 2021.

[9] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 28, 2021.

[10], January 19, 2021.

[11], January 14, 2021.

[12], January 18, 2021.

[13], January 18, 2021.

[14], January 13, 2021.

[15] Al-Thawra (Syria), January 18, 2021.

[16] Al-Thawra (Syria), January 19, 2021.

[17] Al-Mudun (Lebanon), January 10, 2021.

[18] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 28, 2021.

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