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World Middle East

Russian tightrope between Israel and Iran in Syria

  • Paula
If there is something surprising about the downing of a Russian military aircraft a little over three weeks ago in Syria, it is that it didn’t happen sooner.
by PAULA SLIER | Oct 11, 2018

Ever since Moscow took control of the skies over Israel’s northern neighbour three years ago, it has walked an increasingly tight rope maintaining the status quo between Israel and Iran who are sworn enemies and both operating inside Syria.

Sometimes when you try to be everyone’s friend, you land up having no friends.

For a while now, Jerusalem has been making a lot of noise about the close working relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Every few weeks, Netanyahu visits the Kremlin for talks, consultations, or updates behind closed doors. On more than one occasion after his return to Israel, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has almost immediately conducted massive airstrikes in Syria.

The feeling among Israelis is that while Putin does not approve of the strikes, he turns the other cheek, which from an Israeli military point of view amounts to much the same thing.

Israelis boast how well the two leaders get on. Netanyahu was a guest of honour at the Moscow Victory Day parade in Red Square in May. The two countries have long enjoyed good relations despite the ongoing problems besetting the region.

But in reality, all the showmanship didn’t stop relations plummeting to an unprecedented low. This doesn’t mean that a severance of diplomatic ties and Russian imposition of sanctions is likely. For now, at least, the matter seems to have been dealt with.

The crisis started after a Russian reconnaissance plane was mistakenly shot down by Syrian air defence units, killing 15 Russian servicemen on board. Moscow launched an official investigation. This concluded, with the help of radar imagery, that the IAF was solely responsible for the tragedy by using the Russian plane as cover and exposing it during a raid on Syrian targets. Jerusalem denied any responsibility, and blamed Syria and its ally Iran for the incident.

A number of analysts – both Israeli and Russian – feel the mask has dropped and “Russia has revealed itself as an enemy of Israel”. What’s more, many suggest, there’s been a resurgence of traditional anti-Semitism in Russian nationalistic-religious discourse, with stereotypes like “Jewish treachery” and “Jewish ingratitude” again surfacing.

As one observer wrote, “Many Russians hear on Putin’s media outlets that in exchange for giving permission to use Syrian airspace and a number of other gestures to the Jewish people of Israel, their country has paid with the plane disaster. They easily identify with the popular anti-Semitic image of ungrateful Soviet Jews who were saved by Stalin and by the Russian people from annihilation, but who continued to cultivate ties with the enemies of the Soviet Union.”

This view is best summed up by the comment expressed by many Israelis I’ve spoken to that, “It’s classic anti-Semitism – Syria shoots down a Russian plane, and Israel gets blamed!”

In response to the incident, Moscow last week delivered its S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria. The move is meant to protect Russian troops and military infrastructure in the country. However, many in Israel interpret it as a slap in the face, as Jerusalem has repeatedly campaigned against this, fearing it could hinder the IAF’s aerial capabilities.

The S-300 system fires missiles from trucks, and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short and medium-range ballistic weapons. The system make things more difficult for future IAF strikes against weapon convoys destined for the Lebanese militant organisation Hezbollah in Syria. It also helps protect Iranian forces in the country from Israeli attacks.

But in the bigger picture, what is just as concerning is that three months are needed before Syrian soldiers are able to manage the system independently. Thus, for now, it will be Russian officers operating the missiles against Israeli aircraft.

Imagine if one of them was to shoot down an Israeli plane? This might be a moot point, though, as American President Donald Trump has reportedly agreed to the immediate delivery of an additional number of F-35 stealth war planes – considered the best fighter jets in the world – to the IAF. They are allegedly able to carry out combat missions in Syria without being detected by the S-300 anti-aircraft batteries.

Many Russian citizens criticise Israel for behaving as it wishes. The official Russian response, in part, can be interpreted as a warning to other countries to be wary of shooting down Russian planes. But neither side wants a serious bilateral crisis, and both are already working on easing tensions.

Netanyahu announced last Sunday that he and Putin had spoken via telephone and “agreed to meet soon in order to continue the important inter-military security co-ordination”.

At the time of going to press, Deputy Russian Prime Minister Maxim Akimov, had arrived in Israel for discussions on economic co-operation. Netanyahu used the opportunity to stress the importance of continued dialogue between the countries over common threats.

In essence, what exists between Moscow and Jerusalem over the latter’s military behaviour in Syria is a “gentleman’s agreement” that, especially now as the war in Syria winds down, is critically important to Jerusalem. If Russia so chooses, it can hurt Israeli interests by covertly supplying arms to parties Israel regards as her enemies. It can also threaten to shoot down any Israeli plane approaching Syrian airspace.

Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed he will continue to uphold military co-ordination with Russia in Syria. However, he will have a hard time changing the new reality in that country, despite the delivery of the new American stealth fighters and his frequent visits to Moscow.

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