(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Syrian army, backed by Russian air power and an Iranian-supported militia, is currently pounding the southwestern Syrian territory of Daraa into submission. This must be an especially gratifying moment for Syrian President Bashar Assad. In March 2011, the Daraa region was among the first places to rise up against the Assad regime, winning it the sobriquet, “cradle of the revolution.”
Now, seven years and countless atrocities later, Daraa appears to be going from cradle to grave. People there are desperate for shelter. Once, refugees from Daraa found safety just across the southern border, in Jordan. But the gates of Jordan have been closed since 2016. The United Nations says there are 650,000 Syrian refugees in the Hashemite Kingdom. Jordan puts its unofficial total at more than a million. It is not planning to take more.
As a result, Daraa residents are now looking westward, toward the Israeli Golan Heights, for refuge. Thousands have already arrived, setting up tent camps near the buffer zone that separates the Israeli and Syrian armies. Estimates put the number of potential refugees at 100,000 or more.
On Sunday, at the weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed this possibility. He was simple and direct. “We will continue to defend our borders,” he said. His meaning was clear. Under no circumstances will Israel allow refugees to flood in.
As he spoke, the Israeli Defense Forces were already bringing reinforcements to the Golan. The deployment was televised, a warning to Assad not to push refugees from the Daraa campaign in the direction of Israel. The army’s buildup included not only tanks but artillery — a warning within a warning.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel hit downtown Damascus with artillery fire. The pieces Assad saw on TV were a reminder to Assad that his palace is not out of range (not to mention the fact that artillery shells are cheaper and easier than airborne missile attacks).
Netanyahu’s hardline defensive posture is not at all politically controversial in Israel. The great majority of Israelis oppose taking in refugees, especially Syrians raised on hatred of Israel. And the civil war, with its shifting allegiances, has compounded the vetting problem. An unknown but significant number of Al Qaeda terrorists and sympathizers are mixed in with the general population of Daraa.
But that doesn't mean Israel will ignore the refugees outside its gates. “We will extend humanitarian support to the best of our abilities,” Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting. For the past six years, the IDF has provided (relatively) friendly nearby Syrian villages with significant medical aid and other provisions.
There were also reports that it was supplying them with light weapons and ammunition, though the Israeli military doesn't comment on that. But this week the IDF very publicly began stocking tents, food, clothing and baby supplies for the expected refugees. This, too is a message – play by our rules if you want our help.
But it is at the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki on July 16 that the big decisions about Syria will be discussed, and Netanyahu will be watching it closely. For Bibi, the main issue in the Syrian conflict is Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel, which has supported Assad and whose military presence in Syria is seen as a threat in Israel. By contrast, Bashar Assad is small potatoes. Israel has lived for decades with the Assad family next door; it knows how to cope.
The Russian presence in Syria is a plus as far is Netanyahu is concerned. For years he has cultivated a good relationship with Putin, letting him know that he respects Russia’s interests and hopes for reciprocity. That means keeping Iranian-led forces as far from Israel as possible, and allowing the IDF to frustrate Iran’s effort to import advanced weapons.
What Putin wants is help with President Trump. What form that help takes will depend on what Putin is not able to get from the U.S. president at the summit; nobody can lobby Trump like Bibi, as shown by the new Jerusalem embassy.
Trump doesn’t need any lobbying on the subject of Iran. The president is fully aware that Tehran is a dangerous enemy. And, unlike Netanyahu, he has a very powerful weapon at his disposal. The threat of American sanctions is already shaking the leadership in Teheran.
It is probably too much to hope that economic pressure alone will bring down such a repressive regime in the short term. It is, however, reasonable to believe that harsh U.S. sanctions (in the face of European opposition) can force the Iranian leadership to drastically reduce the budget for regional military adventures. An Iranian pullback in the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza would be a foreign policy coup for any U.S. president. For his support, Trump would need to offer Putin something in return.
In a perfect world, the summit would work toward a vision for a new Syria with a decent government. In this one, the best hope is to deprive Assad of his Iranian muscle and convince Russia to cease its enabling of Iranian mischief-making there. The tragedy presently unfolding in Daraa will not be halted by anything that happens at the summit, nor will it be mitigated by Israeli humanitarian aid. That chance has past. Now is the time to think about preventing the next Daraa.
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