Putin seeks Israel's help in easing U.S. sanctions on Syria

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Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to encourage the Biden administration to ease some of its sanctions on Syria in order to allow Russian companies to take part in the reconstruction of the country, Israeli officials briefed on the talks tell me.

The big picture: The U.S. Caesar Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in Dec. 2019, imposed sanctions on several sectors of the Syrian economy, including energy and infrastructure. The law is the main deterrent for foreign companies interested in getting involved in the Syria reconstruction effort.

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Behind the scenes, Israeli officials say Putin wants Russian companies to get most of the big reconstruction projects in Syria, to boost both revenues and Russian influence in the Syrian economy.

  • Putin told Bennett during their meeting in Sochi last Friday that some Russian companies are afraid to do business in Syria because they don’t want to be hit by U.S. sanctions.

  • The Russians argue that this opens the way for Iranian companies that are already under U.S. sanctions to get those major projects, thereby increasing the Iranian influence in Syria, Israeli officials say.

  • The Israeli Prime Minister’s office declined to comment.

Between the lines: The Russians seem to hope that the Israeli interest in weakening Iran’s hold in Syria will encourage Bennett's government to push the Biden administration to ease the sanctions.

State of play: Several Arab countries have recently moved to normalize relations with Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

  • In recent weeks, Assad has spoken with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

  • The Russians are encouraging this trend, while the U.S. says it opposes such normalization with Assad or moving ahead with the reconstruction of the country.

What’s next: The Russians want to hold a trilateral meeting of the national security advisers of Russia, Israel and the U.S. to discuss the way forward in Syria.

  • Israeli officials say they are discussing this idea with both sides but no date has been set.

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