On Monday, Israel broadcast its intentions to continue airstrikes against Iranian-backed targets in Syria. The announcement comes in spite of a ceasefire brokered by the United States, Jordan, and Russia. While the Israeli announcement is intended to demonstrate a high degree of military independence, it belies the fact that the Jewish state has become increasingly dependent on Russian goodwill in order to freely combat Iranian and Hezbollah threats emanating from Syria.
Israel has avoided aligning with a specific political faction in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Despite Jerusalem’s longstanding enmity with the Assad government, Israel finds no natural partner among the many Islamist militant groups operating in Syria, and certainly not the Islamic State. Memories of Israel’s protracted quagmire in Lebanon, when Jerusalem tried to prop up a friendly Christian regime and was ultimately drawn into an ugly eighteen-year occupation, surely inform the policy of general non-interference in Syria. However, Israel has set red lines for limited military action, largely related to the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
Pursuant to these red lines, Israel has carried out a series of airstrikes inside Syria – perhaps as many as 100 since 2011. In the first years of the conflict, the Israeli Air Force enjoyed a great deal of operational freedom in Syria with limited political consequences for surgical strikes. Although the Israel-Syria frontier had remained largely quiet since the Yom Kippur War, the two countries were already in an official state of war (dating back to 1948) when the first protests began in Dera’a in early 2011. As popular demonstrations gave way to civil war, the Syrian military’s attention turned inward, away from Israel. Jerusalem actively played down its role in Syria while highlighting its narrow objectives: keeping Hezbollah at bay, as opposed to decisively supporting a party to the conflict.
Israel’s military latitude in Syria was suddenly challenged in September 2015, when Russia began an open intervention in Syria to shore up President Bashar al Assad. Overnight, Israel was faced with a bizarre dilemma: the active deployment near its borders of a friendly military (Russia) in defense of a hostile actor (the Syrian government).
Soviet and Israeli fighter jets dueled over Egypt at the height of the Cold War, but back then the Israelis had little political investment to lose from the clashes. The U.S.S.R. cut off diplomatic ties with Israel and actively supported the Arab states in the wars of 1967 and 1973. By contrast, Israel maintains a close, if modest, partnership with the post-Soviet Russian Federation, establishing political, trade, and even defense cooperation. Israeli leaders exercise great care in tending to relations with Moscow, treating their Russian contacts with even more delicacy than Jerusalem’s ties with the United States.
Rather than end its campaign against Assad and Hezbollah, Israel pursued measures to coordinate its policy with Russia’s. Jerusalem opened an emergency hotline with Moscow, an apparatus to prevent a potentially catastrophic incident – like the Turkish Air Force’s shootdown of a Russian Sukhoi fighter-bomber in November 2015, which temporarily upended Russia-Turkey relations and produced aftershocks throughout the Middle East and former Soviet Union.
Russia has begrudgingly permitted Israeli sorties against certain Syrian, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-linked targets. Officials in Moscow understand Israel’s aims in Syria are limited and that its airstrikes will not tip the balance against Assad. Still, even minute, tactical Israeli pressure against Damascus is not something the Russians are enthusiastic about. Moreover, deconfliction instruments like the hotline have not prevented all friction between Israeli and Russian forces in Syrian airspace. Russian and IAF planes have experienced a number of close calls. Early last year, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin alerted Vladimir Putin that Russian jets had accidentally fired on Israeli aircraft, though no impact was reported. This past March, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren after Israeli planes reportedly struck too close to a Russian troop deployment.
Israel has historically assumed great risks carrying out secretive operations against enemy states. However, Jerusalem has never conducted a military mission explicitly against the wishes of a friendly power like Russia. Thus, Israel operates in Syria largely at Moscow’s mercy. If Russia were to try to strictly enforce aerial control – or even a no-fly zone – over Assad’s territory, Israel would face two unpalatable alternatives: cease interfering with Hezbollah’s buildup in Syria or fly in the face of Russian policy. The first choice is unacceptable because of its obvious implications for Israel’s security, especially in the north. The second option would bring the modern Israel-Russia relationship into uncharted waters. Unlike during the Cold War, Israel has much to lose in its present-day relationship with Moscow.
As a small country, Israel has often had to collaborate with larger powers in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives. In the 1960s and 1970s, imperial Iran facilitated clandestine Israeli interventions in Iraqi Kurdistan. Then, Tehran’s broader diplomatic priorities shifted and Iran and Iraq settled their outstanding disputes under the 1975 Algiers Accord. That agreement pulled the rug out from under a joint U.S.-Iranian-Israeli operation, forcing Jerusalem to abruptly end its involvement with the Kurds based on the whims of another state. Geographically, the Kurdish example was far-removed from Israel’s most sensitive border regions, but it demonstrates that Israel is highly dependent on the generosity of its ostensible partners. Should Russia suddenly obstruct the Jewish state’s involvement in Syria, the impact would be more immediate and far-reaching on the Israeli home front.
What might motivate Russia to curb Israeli intervention in Syria? A number of contingencies merit examining.
Despite the outward veneer of a united front supporting Assad, Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are not natural allies, even in Syria. For now, Russia seems satisfied keeping a friendly regime in power in Damascus. President Bashar al Assad’s government matches this description, but it need not be Moscow’s only option. Russia’s key strategic interests in Syria, including its new military bases, are not intrinsically tied to Assad, nor even a decisive resolution to the Syrian civil war. In many ways, a managed Russian intervention can preserve these gains without a definitive government victory. By contrast, Iran seems intent on fashioning Assad into a client wholly subordinate to direction from Tehran. Russia’s insistence on developing amicable ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia are further out-of-line with Iranian aims. On paper, the recent U.S.-Jordan-Russia ceasefire in Syria denies Iranian forces access to areas within 12 miles of the Israeli line-of-control in the Golan Heights. However, ties between Russia and Iran are not static. A positive change in Russia’s relationship with Iran could impel Moscow to dispense with Israeli security concerns. Likewise, a deterioration in the Syrian state’s position – and with it, the security of Russia’s bases – could lead Russia to call on Israel to dial back its actions against Assad.
The type of Russian military hardware deployed in Syria also figures into Israel’s threat assessment. In September, Moscow dispatched the second S-400 SAM to Masyaf, near Hama in northwestern Syria. Russia maintains these platforms in Syria to protect its installations there. The S-400s cover most of Syria’s airspace and large swaths of neighboring countries, including areas of Israel as far south as Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod. As long as Russian Aerospace Defense Forces crews are operating the S-400s in Syria, Israel has little to fear from this. It seems highly unlikely at present that Iran (or Syria) would acquire the S-400, but even the remote possibility is something Israel will have to plan for.
There is one other important factor: Israel must consider the degree of political cachet Russia attaches to the truce it just helped negotiate in Syria. If Moscow perceives Israel as undermining a diplomatic prestige project by continuing airstrikes through the ceasefire regime, the Russians may take a harder line with Jerusalem. As it stands, Russia’s sensitivity toward Israeli interests is inconsistent: Sometimes Vladimir Putin’s government is fairly receptive. Sometimes it ignores Israel altogether.
Behind the bluster of Monday’s Israeli statement on Syria lies a far more fragile arrangement than most officials in Jerusalem are willing to concede. Far from operating freely in Syria, the Israeli Air Force is beholden largely to a third party: Russia.