A Syrian woman walks past a placard bearing a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Damascus. (Photo: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Prisoner Diplomacy Between Netanyahu and Assad

Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, May 1

What is happening between Israel and Syria under Russian patronage goes beyond appearances. Earlier this month, Israel announced receipt of the remains of an Israeli soldier who had been buried in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. He was killed in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion. Two weeks later, Israel announced the release of two Syrian prisoners held in Israel. It is worth noting that the Israeli remains were given a Russian honor guard in Moscow in advance of their transfer to Israel, while the Syrians were released with little publicity. Still, behind the scenes it seems as if the two countries, Syria and Israel, have engaged in confidence-building measure under Russian auspices, but without any of the participating parties announcing the broader context of any ongoing communications and their ultimate objective. This comes at a time when Iran is preoccupied with its growing crisis with the Trump Administration, after the latter made another step on the road to an economic blockade of Iran. Tehran is too preoccupied with its own problems to care about what is transpiring in Syria. It is clear that the common denominator among the main players in Syria is to get Iran out. This is the declared Israeli position, coupled with a policy of open strikes against all possible Iranian targets throughout Syria, while Moscow turns a blind eye. In practice, Moscow informed the relevant parties in Damascus and Tehran that an Iranian acquisition of Latakia port in Syria would make it a legitimate target for the Israelis and subject it to blockades by European and American naval patrols. [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin knows that a political solution in Syria is not possible without Washington and that Washington will not agree to a political solution that does not include the exit of Iran from Syria. This means that Russia must find a way to work with the US unless it wants to find itself stuck in the Syrian quagmire for many more decades. [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad continues to evade the Russian initiative to return all displaced Syrian peoples and deliberately delays the implementation of what he is expected to do, such as the passing of a general amnesty law, for example. In this context, the humiliating and unequal prisoner swap with Israel further erodes Assad’s prestige. At the same time, it suggests that he is ready to make whatever concessions are necessary to Tel Aviv if it means Russia will have his back. In fact, several regime officials have told me that Assad will not hesitate to sign a peace treaty with Israel if this assures his survival. Even in this case, I find it very difficult to see Assad remaining because all the peace agreements would not negate the simple fact that his regime is hostile to the majority of its people. How will Iran will respond to this? That’s the most interesting question. – Nadim Qutaish

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