Messages behind the “Syrian Gift” Offered by Russia to Israel
Russia, with returning the body of the soldier Zachary Baumel, who was missing on the 1982 war and was buried in Syria, to Israel has proven that it is “the one in control” and that it is the first side to have command over the Syrian decision-making process, regardless of the Syrian regime which appeared as a tool that cannot make any resolutions relating to sovereignty, which is nothing new since the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015. However, the action that the landscape is witnessing has a much louder impact of everything that happened in Syria earlier on, as it is not a matter of Syrian concern alone, but it lies in the heart of the Lebanese and the Palestinian affairs.
It is clear that the deal, concluded with the delivery of the remains to Israel, was a slap and a big offense to “the audience of resistance and opposition”, for Zachary Baumel has killed Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians alike in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982 and Israel has recovered his body 37 years later, under the full recognition of the principal actor in the “party of resistance and opposition,” aka the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad, which failed to find a way out of this situation other than the very brief statements of the Minister of Information and Press Imad Sarah.
The direct and explicit benefit of giving back the remains of the Israeli soldier has to do with the timing of the delivery process, as it corresponds to the very few days before the Israeli elections, through which the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strives to be reelected, which means that the recovered body is a huge gift to the latter, placed in his pocket beside the most prominent present offered to him by The President of the U.S. Donald Trump, who recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Syrian occupied Golan Heights.
Nonetheless, there remains an unclear vocal point, which is the indirect benefits that either Russia or Iran would gain through delivering the remains of the soldier, which might clear up in the future, especially since the declaration of the deal came in sync with Russia’s discussion of the fate of Bashar al-Assad and the process of coordination with Israel in Syria as to prevent any military combat during the attacks on the military posts in Syria, not to mention that it followed the U.S. decision concerning Golan, which cannot be seen separately under the current conditions.
The Remains Belong to Whom
On June 11, five Israeli soldiers were lost during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub between the Syrian and the Israeli forces in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley. A few years later, two of the captives were returned alive in a prisoner exchange with Syria and the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine”.
Nonetheless, the fate of Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz remained unknown despite all the efforts that the Israeli authorities made to find their whereabouts, while reports about their destiny contradicted in the past years. It was not till 2018 that the Israeli media reported that their bodies are believed to be buried in the Yarmouk camp in Southern Damascus, which the Assad’s forces controlled in May 2018.
Negotiations Did Not Stop
The remains of the soldier were not the first “precious” gift that Putin offers to Netanyahu, as it was preceded by several others, including one in May 2016, where Russia returned an Israeli tank, rendered malfunction during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub. The gifts where all sent back from Syria and based on the reality of the area’s situation, none of these presents were for free, but they were all answered with gifts, especially the celebration of the return of the body of the Israeli soldier and the distinct halo that surrounded the affair, which the Russian President Vladimir Putin held at the headquarters of the Russian Ministry of Defense that was beyond free or meaningless, for the ceremony is laden with secrets and dimensions, the consequences of which are to appear later.
The thing to discuss here is the Russian confirmation that the “Syrian Army” was the entity that helped in the recovery of Baumel’s body, which was there along with the Russian special forces during the operation they conducted in the Yarmouk camp, a thing that did convince neither the pro or anti-regime populace, as it meant that the deal was sealed under the knowledge of and permission from al-Assad himself, though the affair is not of a crucial importance at an international level.
Meeting Netanyahu on April 4, Putin said: “As you know, our forces with the Syrian forces have recovered the body of the soldier. It is important that his family can place a wreath on his grave.” He added that the matter was not that easy, while Netanyahu thanked him, saying: “Thank you, my friend, for what you have done.”
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Talal Mustafa, a Syrian researcher and academician, said that the Israeli announcement of the arrival of the body of Baumel and conducting a burial ceremony stress that the negotiations between the Israeli government and the Syrian regime did not stop in the past a few years, starting with returning the Israeli tank, inside which this soldier was killed, to the moment the watch of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen’s was recovered, and other deals, on top of which is the delivery of the bodies of the remaining soldiers, where they undergo a DNA test in Israel.
The Syrian researcher believes that the Syrian regime, in return for delivering the remains, has obtained the ability to reach the Syrian-Israeli borders in Southern Syria in general, and in Qunitera in particular, under the auspice of Russia and what is referred to as reconciliations. In other words, the price was the Assad’s forces having control over Southern Syria, Daraa and Qunitera.
The Syrian regime returned to the border area of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel, in July 2018, after seven years from its withdrawal under the progress of the opposition factions, which held massive areas in the Qunitera governorate in the past a few years, until they reached a deal that Russia guaranteed following understandings with the Israeli side.
Back then, the deal followed the Assad’s forces control over large areas in the western rural parts of Daraa, under a “reconciliation” agreement, through which the forces advanced deeper and entered the administrative borders of Qunitera, in sync with an aerial Russian shelling, during which the aircraft used the airspace of the occupied Golan to conduct their raids.
Delivery’s Timing: Political Messages
With the great and the special value of the soldier’s body deal, the timing in which it was conducted is of the greatest importance, for, on the one hand, it corresponds to the approaching Israeli elections and the fact that it followed Trump’s recognition of Golan as an Israeli territory on the other. The return of the body also came at a time where tension is rising between Iran and Israel, which is continuing with its aerial attacks of military posts in Syria to the day.
The ceremony at the Russian Ministry of Defense was not limited to the delivery of the Israeli soldier’s remains, but it was a backstage for meetings between Russian and Israeli military and security officials, during which they discussed the “S-300” system deal and touched on the coordination between them concerning the upcoming attacks on military posts in Syria and the necessity that Israel provide Russia with a longer notice before initiating any attacks.
Researcher Talal Mustafa believes that the Russian declaration that Moscow has played the principal role in the recovery of the Israeli soldier’s body is to appease the Zionist lobby and say that it is not only Trump, with his decision to offer Golan to Israel, who is keen on Israel’s security, but also Putin is, and here is the evidence to it.
The declaration, according to the researcher, also comes as to reassure Israel that al-Assad, the son, is just like his father was “the best to make the good guard of Israel’s borders.” Accordingly, Israel has to work as to keep al-Assad on his pots. In this context, another declaration makes significance, which is that the affair of the regime staying in power is something of the past.
In sync with the Russian-Israeli meeting in Moscow, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affair stressed that the fate of Bashar al-Assad is not being discussed when it comes to the Syrian affair, considering it a “closed chapter.”
In an interview with the Echo of Moscow, Maria Zakharova the Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “No. This matter is not subject for negotiation, and the affair of al-Assad’s departure is a door shut, and everybody has closed this chapter.”
In addition to this, the researcher believes the recovery of the soldier’s body deal is a message from the Israeli government to its Israeli citizens that “Israeli citizens are scared, and the Israeli governments cannot give up on them,” and the recovery of the remains of an Israeli soldier after 37 years of being missing is nothing but a proof to that, if compared to what the al-Assad’s regime is doing to the Syrian citizens.
Since 2015, Russia has been leading a pro-Assad military coalition in Syria, part of which is made of the Iranian forces, but still Israel keeps a channel to put conflicts with Russia aside, as to avoid unintentional disputes between its air forces and the Russian air force, while both of them are active in the Syrian airspace.
The importance of the delivery timing is not limited to what is mentioned above, as it followed the increasing Iranian presence in Syria lately, whether at the level of economic agreements that Iran signed with the government of the Syrian regime or the exchanged visits between the two sides, Iran and the Syrian regime, including the al-Assad’s visit to Tehran last March, where he met the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the President Hassan Rouhani and the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qasem Soleimani.
It is only natural for Putin to make a reaction in front of the international community that he is the ruler in Syria and that what al-Assad is doing does not represent the Russian will. For this reason, the deal of returning the body of Baumel has a vocal political dimension to it that has to do with the Iranian presence in Syria and the hidden war or what is referred to as the shadow war between Israel and Iran.
The deal is also an indicator of the deep coordination between Russia and the regime, according to the researcher, who explains that what Russia has done is a message to Iran that it cannot count on the Syrian regime for its resistance, but rather, it is Russia which offers the side to depend on.
Narrow Political Logic
Shifting to the Syrian part of the deal, led by the Assad regime, the latter did not admit playing a role in the deal, despite the Russian confirmations that stressed the regime forces’ participation alongside the Russian special forces, while its comments on the affair were limited to the statements of the Minister of Information and Press Imad Sarah, who refuted the regime’s knowledge of the returning of the Israeli soldier, attributing the act to “terrorist groups”, in a scene that proved the regime’s narrow politics.
The researcher Talal Mustafa said that what is called the Syrian sovereignty of the Syrian regime is “one of the regime’s illusions or media advertisement directed to Syrian citizens, which aim at political misinformation.”
He added that the proof to this is the contradictory statements of the Syrian regime, for, in the first day of announcing the arrival of the Israeli soldier’s body, the regime, as usual, accused the terrorist organizations of being behind the deal, but the Russian media appeared on the scene and announced Moscow’s role, in coordination with the Syrian regime, in a direct slap. After this, Imad Sarah, the Minister of Information and Press, came back announcing the regime’s ignorance of the deal of the delivery of the body. Here, the regime’s position can be described according to the researcher as a disaster in case the regime knew of the affair and a greater disaster if it was ignorant of it.
He explained that if the regime was ignorant of the deal, which is unlikely, this would be a proof that there is not a true sovereignty over the political decisions anyway, which means that the regime is totally dependent on the Russians, but if the regime knew and have had coordinated for the deal at a high level, which is the closest to truth, this is another proof to the “treacherousness of this regime since 1970 to the day.”