If Syria is now the Kremlin’s backyard, then Israel is Russia’s much-concerned next-door neighbor.
Russia’s offensive in Syria is paying big dividends, and not only for the coalition assembled by Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a consequence of understandings reached between Putin and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the beginning of the Russian bombing campaign in September, Israel has become a silent if uneasy partner, along with Iran and Hezbollah, in the energised campaign to defeat the increasingly besieged opposition.
If “Syria is now the Kremlin’s backyard”, then Israel is Russia’s much-concerned next-door neighbour. In the past decades, Israel has evolved an expanded security doctrine regarding Syria that asserts unchallenged control of the skies over the entire country, a doctrine at once complicated and threatened by Russia’s military escalation.
On the face of it, the Russian deployment represents a strategic challenge to long-held advantages enjoyed by Israel. The Russian deployment in Syria, spearheaded by the transfer of Sukhoi 35 multi-role fighters, the installation of S400 Triumf radar/missile units and the signing of a status of forces agreement, confers upon Russia powers unprecedented in the post-1967 era.
Russia’s operational presence
These developments relate not merely to Russia’s operational presence. They also represent a Russian commitment to the Assad regime and to the role being played by allies Hezbollah and Iran far beyond any previous demonstration of Russian support in the past half-century.
Three essential features of deep concern to Israel have been affected by the Russian deployment. Foremost among these is Israel’s long-enjoyed and unchallenged air superiority throughout the country.
Not since the war of attrition over Suez in 1969 have Russian and Israeli combat aircraft confronted each other in contested airspace.
Putin’s daring move forces Israel to assess a range of complications, and to think twice before undertaking actions in Syria that were formerly unremarkable.
Russia’s deployment has the potential to threaten Israel’s ability not only to fly unmolested in Syrian skies but also to take large-scale military measures in Syria such as the 2007 destruction of the Syrian nuclear site near Deir ez-Zor.
Russia is also positioned to threaten and disrupt Israeli attacks on arms depots destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, force and border protection actions along the Golan frontier and, last but not least, pinpoint operations against individuals like the assassination of Jihad Mughniyeh one year ago.
The deployment of S400 system is another key anchor of the Russian deployment and, like Russian aircraft, it represents not only evidence of the changed operating environment but also a potential challenge to Israel’s security doctrine on its northern frontier.
With a range of 400km, the S400 can “see” all the way to Tel Aviv and beyond, not to mention the Golan frontier. Israel’s air force operations throughout this sector are now transparent to Russia. But it is far less likely that Russia’s allies in the joint operations room shared with the Syrian army, Hezbollah and Iran’s IRGC, are privy to this data.
A Jerusalem-Moscow axis
Given the capabilities introduced by Russia, and the possible advantage Syria, Iran and Hezbollah might enjoy as a result, it is no surprise that Netanyahu jumped on a plane for Moscow literally moments after the Russian deployment was announced in September.
His critical mission was twofold – to win assurances that Russia would not interfere in the existing rules of the game that enable Israel to undertake at will missions in sovereign Syrian airspace against Syrian, Hezbollah, and Iranian targets, and to make operational arrangements to reflect these understandings.
The arrangements reached since September between Israel and Russia are of a different order from the protocols established between Washington and Moscow. The latter are restricted to “deconfliction”, while the favoured description of the Jerusalem-Moscow axis is a more expansive “coordination”.
By all accounts the top-level diplomatic and operational efforts between Israel and Russia have succeeded.
Netanyahu and Putin met in Paris less than a week after the Turkish Air Force on November 24 downed a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 over the Syrian-Turkish border – the first such incident between a NATO country and Russia in the post-World War II era, and one that highlighted, in Tel Aviv as elsewhere, the troubling uncertainty of this new era.
Netanyahu explained to Putin that “the events of recent days prove the importance of our coordination, our deconfliction mechanisms, our attempts to cooperate with each other to prevent unnecessary accidents and tragedies, and I believe that we’ve been successful.”
At a January 15 news conference, Netanyahu confirmed that Russia and Israel “acknowledge the fact of each other’s special interests and plan to do so [in order that] this coordination and absence of confrontation continue”.
Other bitter conflicts
The Russian security umbrella over Syria enables the bombing campaign against the opposition, but it also has the potential to more broadly dampen the potential for other bitter conflicts.
This has been the case with the operations of the Syrian air force, which, now outfitted with more modern Russian supplied hardware, routinely flies missions alongside Russian aircraft in the south and elsewhere, under Israel’s watchful eye to be sure, but less concerned than in the past about an Israeli attack.
The current Russian-led offensive in the south around Deraa, perhaps more than the “deconfliction” protocols separating the Israeli and Russian air forces, has the potential to challenge what Israel’s defense minister Moshe Ya’alon has described as “an open channel [with Russia] for coordination in order to prevent misunderstandings” and to complicate the shared Israel and Russian preference for a successful Russian campaign.
Tehran is keen to suggest that the Russian participation in the newly energised campaign around Deraa is meant as a warning to Israel, rather than a demonstration of the advantages of coordination with it.
“The seizing back of Sheikh Meskin can result in the ultimate defeat of the foreign terrorists in Southern Damascus and the Resistance force’s domination over the Southern borders of Syria that will, in turn, pave the way for opening a new front against the Zionist regime,” informed military sources said.
Russia’s entry into the war shows no such intentions. Its strategic presence aims at maintaining rather than upending the existing balance of forces between the regime, its regional allies, and Israel.
Whether they like it or not, expanding Russian control limits the power of lesser players in Jerusalem or Tehran to dictate Syria’s future.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The Moscow-Jerusalem axis over Syria – Al Jazeera English