There have long been fears that the solidification of a direct Iranian presence in western Syria would lead to direct confrontation with Israel. In the last few days, this has begun to occur. Rockets were fired at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Israeli military blames Iran’s Quds Force, the extraterritorial arm of the Revolutionary Guard, for the firing. This would appear to be the first time Iranian forces have directly attacked Israeli (albeit occupied) territory.
With this escalation firmly in the background, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s Victory Day parade, commemorating the Nazi surrender in World War II, on Wednesday.
In a typically emotional formulation, Netanyahu opined that “we in Israel do not forget for a moment the great sacrifice of the Russian people and the Red Army in the victory over the Nazi monster…. We will never forget the meaning of your sacrifice, of those soldiers, along with the half a million Jewish soldiers in the Red Army, in ensuring the fate of Russia, of humanity, and of our people, the Jewish people.”
The visit should be seen in the context of Netanyahu’s herculean efforts to foster a productive personal and geopolitical relationship with Putin. This has included refusing to criticize the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 or its bombings of Syrian civilians.
Recently, it refused to join sanctions over the alleged assassination attempt on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Russian newspaper Kommersant recently that the Israeli refusal to cooperate with international sanctions reflected the “special relationship” between Israel and Russia.
Aside from being perceived by some as a blight on the ethical standing of Israel, the policy toward Russia has not always delivered the desired results. Russia has provided the Syrian military with technology that threatens Israeli aerial supremacy within the beleaguered country.
For example, in February, an Israeli F-16 was shot down by a Russian-made missile. Moscow has also firmly criticized Israeli bombing runs, particularly when they endanger Russian military personnel. In particular, it was critical of the Israeli attack of April 9 that resulted in the death of Iranian personnel.
The Russian presence has provided a de facto military and diplomatic umbrella for the deepening of Iranian influence in Syria. However, Israel’s patient building-up of ties with Russia appears to be finally yielding concrete results
Indeed, in practice, the Russian presence has provided a de facto military and diplomatic umbrella for the deepening of Iranian influence in Syria.
However, the patient building-up of ties with Russia appears to be finally yielding concrete results. Just a few hours after the Netanyahu-Putin meeting, Israel launched a wave of attacks of unprecedented magnitude against Iranian targets. Fifty targets were struck, marking the most extensive military operation the Israeli air force has launched in the territory of its neighbor since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
This would imply one of two things: Either the Russians gave tacit approval to the strike or Putin was unable to dissuade Netanyahu despite his best efforts. In light of the Israeli prime minister’s post-meeting comments, the former seems significantly more likely. Netanyahu said there had been concern in the past that the Russians would try to limit Israeli freedom of operation but “that didn’t happen, and I have no basis to think that this time will be different.”
The Russian silence after the most recent attacks has been deafening. Indeed, it appears that Russian-operated air defenses stood silent as the Israeli attacks took place.
What can be learned from these developments? The Russians appear to understand that Israel cannot tolerate direct Iranian attacks on its territory. It is also willing to accept a de facto Israeli security zone of undetermined depth extending from the Golan Heights eastward.
Just as important, it is showing a distinct willingness to allow Israeli attacks on Iranian targets deep inside Syria under the following three conditions. First, that the attacks are provoked by hostile Iranian actions against genuine Israeli interests. Second, that the attacks are coordinated with Moscow so that the safety of Russian personnel can be assured. Finally, that the attacks focus on Iran and cause minimal damage to the Bashar al-Assad regime itself.
The unofficial agreement between Israel and Russia points to some of the nuances of Putin’s strategy in Syria. He views the Iranians and Hezbollah as useful allies in the Syrian civil war and a key component in his plans to sideline the United States in the Middle East. However, the Russians are concerned that Iran’s plans to establish itself on the Israeli border will lead to escalating conflict that will ultimately weaken the Assad regime, increase its dependence on Iran and sour Moscow’s relations with Israel. The growing fissures between Iran and Russia point to the possibility that their alliance is temporary.
If the new rules of the game solidify, it will be a major coup for Israel. The United States has given unreserved support to Israel in its attempts to limit Iranian influence in western Syria. If Russia allows Israel significant freedom of operation, the Jewish state faces only limited great-power restraints. Therefore, it can bring its significant technological and logistical advantages to the fore without fear of paying a diplomatic cost.
The Russian willingness to avoid firing missiles at Israeli aircraft also bodes well for Israel. After scoring big with US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal this week from the Iranian nuclear deal, Netanyahu appears to be reaping the benefits of a long-term foreign-policy investment just in time to pull off another coup.