Israel faces potential challenge from Russia over Syria
This article first appeared on The Media Line.
Periodically throughout the four and half years of the Syrian civil war weapon shipments destined for Hezbollah were intercepted and decimated by airstrikes inside Syria. In each instance Israel, whose air force has enjoyed unrivalled dominance of the airspace around the Jewish state’s borders, was believed responsible. But with the deployment of Russian combat aircraft to bases in Syria several weeks ago this hegemony may have ended.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow underscores Israel’s uncertainty over the future in Syria. Israeli officials worry that, inadvertently or otherwise, Russian fighter jets and air defense systems may act as a screen for Hezbollah to move new arms convoys into Syria.
Several days ago Israeli artillery units fired on Syrian army positions in response to errant shells crossing the border. This represented the first time Israel has attacked Syria since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops and jets into the country. Yet the incidents took place in the Golan Heights, far south of any Russian units which are stationed on the coast.
“The most immediate issue is one of having Israeli flights over Syrian territory (and) ensuring that Russia flights won’t have any confusion or accidental fire incidents (with them),” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line. But, he added, “This doesn’t need Netanyahu to visit Moscow.” In a similar manner to back channel communications between the US and Syria, Israel and Russia could have cooperated quietly to ensure that both states air forces operated in the same airspace without coming into conflict. A high level visit by Netanyahu demonstrates a deeper agenda, Sayigh said.
“(Its) more a question of working out how far will Russia go in protecting the regime (of President Bashar Al-Assad) – air defenses, new high tech combat aircraft,” Sayigh explained. Of chief concern to Israel would be the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to the Syrian military, something Russia has repeatedly said it will do, Sayigh said. The Russian built anti-aircraft system is capable of targeting planes and cruise missiles and is considered one of the most capable air defense systems in the world. The Israeli government has stated in the past that it would not accept the S-300 being transferred to the Syrian army.
Although Israel has not actively sought to undermine the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict the two countries are still technically at war. Israelis debate whether Assad’s fall or his survival is better for Israel. Russia, on the other hand, has stated that it will work to ensure Assad remains in power, with Putin declaring that supporting the regime is the most effective way to both fight Islamic State and end violence in the region.
A possibility exists that Russian and Israeli jets could come into conflict over Syrian skies but such a scenario is highly unlikely, Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “Russia is not fighting on the ground and in the air there is enough technical solutions (to ensure an accidental clash would not occur),” Magen said.
On the issue of Hizbullah, Israel retains the right to strike at weapon shipments and this will be understood and accepted by Russia, Magen said. “Russia is not looking for war,” and understands that Israel has certain requirements, the researcher explained. But this is not a disadvantage for Hizbullah however. “It’s good for them because they are part of this coalition – Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah,” Magen concluded.
Israel’s freedom of action over Syria could be curtailed by the Russian deployment, Raymond Hinnebusch, the director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, told The Media Line. “To the extent a Russian air defense umbrella reaches outward from their base in the coastal areas… this would potentially limit Israeli options,” the professor said.
The boost to the beleaguered Syrian regime that Putin’s actions represent could have far reaching implications for the whole of the region if they are enough to ensure Assad’s survival. This could alter Israel’s view of the near future and reverse assessments previously made by Israeli intelligence chiefs that Assad’s demise was inevitable.
“The main strategic change is… that the Russian presence will tend to push back against those pressuring for turning the US/Western airstrikes from (targeting) ISIS to hitting Assad,” Hinnebusch said.
Putin is “hoisting the Americans on their own petard,” by lauding the US sentiment that all states must work together to combat ISIS and then including Syria in this equation, Yezid Sayigh argued. Effectively, the Russians have created a “back window” for Assad to survive by, he suggested.