The tragic downing of the Russian plane in Syria on 18.9.2018 is a regrettable development which hopefully will not have long term ramifications beyond the sorrow of the bereaved families. Given the intensity and involvement of several state and non-state actors in the Syrian situation it is surprising that the incident was the first of its kind.
In the two-stages event Israeli fighter jets attacked a Syrian army depot near the city of Latakia from which Iranian made equipment for manufacturing what Israel called "accurate and lethal weapons"(probably converting rockets to guided missiles)was attacked and destroyed .In the immediate ,following stage the Syrian anti-aircraft systems downed the Russian plane.
There are obviously operational questions as to the relations between the two stages in this event and more importantly, the question of the coordination and de-confliction mechanism between Russia and Israel .The visit and discussions of the Israeli Air Force commander in Moscow (he arrived on 20 September) ought to clear the technical and operational questions and improve procedures where there is a necessity for that.
The solution of the seemingly operational questions is evidently related to the political understandings between Moscow and Jerusalem. Ever since the outbreak of the civil war Israel made it clear that its only concern in Syria is to prevent turning the situation and territory of Syria into a launching pad of military action against Israel .Though for almost 50 years of the Assad family regime in Syria this country has been key to the establishment, arming and assisting the pro-Iranian Hizballah in Lebanon, Israel remained inactive in the developments in Syria .It remained silent when forces of other countries have used the chaotic circumstances in Syria entered Syria pursuing political interests .That was made clear to Moscow and that enabled the close coordination since there has been no contradiction between the long term interests of Russia and Israel.
The spoiler in this sensitive balance is Iran which exploits the situation to create a permanent military base in Syria. It is the only non-Syrian actor which draws Israel attention and reactions. Its strategic designs for Syria and its military activities have been made into a red line in Israel’s strategy towards Syria .This was understood hitherto in Moscow while it has to find the balance between two contradicting interests-the maintenance of working relations with Iran and Israel .While Moscow wants to continue its dialogue with Iran concerning Syria’s political future, Israel wishes to reduce the Iranian military presence in Syria. While Jerusalem uses its military capabilities and acts against the Iranian military plans and activities in Syria, it has to accept Iran increased political standing in Syria and indeed, elsewhere in the region. Finding the fine line between these two policies of Russia and Israel has been the achievement of President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu and the tragic event on 18 September does not change this equation.
The statement by President Putin expresses this strategic understanding though other statements by Russian officials were not helpful since there is no alternative in the current circumstance .Both Russia and Israel are dealing with a very sensitive issues having to balance interests and political realities not always under their control .In the almost 8 years of the Syrian crisis Israel has not stood on the way of Russia’s strategy for Syria while Russia has not acted in a way harming Israel’s long term security .There is no reason to alter this mutually satisfactory situation to Russia and Israel. The Syrian crisis is far from solution. Syria will need an enduring political arrangement, a massive economic effort of rehabilitation and settlement of refugees .Russia and Israel share the interest in a successful Syrian revival but not as an Iranian military base and proxy.