Despite Russian-Israeli successful military coordination over the Syrian space, significant matters of concern remain on the agenda of Russian-Israeli relations.
On November 30th President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu met on the sidelines of the international climate summit in Paris. Putin and Netanyahu's meeting lasted 45 minutes in a cordial atmosphere stemming in part from their long and positive inter-personal relation. This meeting was their second one since Russia's military involvement in Syria. Their first meeting took place on September 21st as Prime Minister Netanyahu and his defense system establishment visited Moscow and reached understandings on military coordination and de-confliction mechanisms over the Syrian airspace.
In their Paris meeting both leaders exchanged their views on the situation in the Middle East and the global war against Islamist terrorism. Netanyahu emphasized the special nature of Israel-Russian relations which does serve Israel’s national interests. He also stressed that Russia and Israel are caught in a common fight against radical Islam and Jihadist terrorism and that the number of countries involved in the fight against radical Islam has only been growing. He lauded the de-confliction mechanism and military coordination that Israel and Russia succeeded to establish at a very early stage. President Putin as well praised the Russian-Israeli coordination mechanism, especially in light of the recent events, which further stress the importance of close military coordination in Syria. In particular, Putin and Netanyahu discussed various dimensions of Russian-Israeli military coordination on the ground and in the air, which has so far been uninterrupted and efficient, and took additional measures aimed at preventing unnecessary clashes between Israeli and Russian military aircraft over the Syrian space. At the background of their discussion lied the intensified tensions between Ankara and Moscow over the downing of a Russian fighter-bomber in Syria by a Turkish jet on November 24th. President Putin provided additional briefing to Prime Minister Netanyahu on the details of the incident.
It should be mentioned that in the wake of the Netanyahu-Putin September meeting in Moscow, a Russian-Israeli working group was established under the direction of First Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army Nikolay Bogdanovsky and Deputy Chief of Staff of IDF Major General Yair Golan. Bogdanovsky and Golan met on October 6-7 at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv with the goal of establishing mechanisms for security measures between the air and ground forces operating in the region. Their working group is more than a formal coordinating body; it is an operative body, which closely monitors and coordinates the interaction of air and space forces of Russia and military-air forces of Israel. To this end, a "hot line" was established between the Russian control center at the "Khmeimin" airbase and Israeli Airforce's command post so as to monitor the evolving situation on the ground and ensure effective military interaction and coordination. Later in October, a Russian military delegation paid a visit to Israel where it underwent a special training with the Israeli air force to ensure safety mechanisms and prevent dangerous clashes over the Syrian sky. To this day the coordination channel and safety mechanisms established between Russian and Israeli Forces have worked to the full satisfaction of both parties.
For example, in a radio declaration released on November 29th (5 days after the downing of the Russian plane by Turkey) Defense Minister Ya'alon mentioned that a Russian jet had breached Israeli airspace as a result of a navigation error. In contrast to the Turkish incident, the Israeli side made contact on the spot with the jet's crew who returned immediately and without incident to the Syrian airspace.
In their Paris meeting, Putin and Netanyahu agreed to enhance their military and security coordination. Intensified coordination is all the more relevant and necessary that Russian military operations are conducted within a tight and crowded airspace, which increases the chances of accidental clashes. A day after the Paris meeting, on December 1st, Nikolay Bogdanovsky and Yair Golan were scheduled to meet in an effort to tighten coordination between the two countries over military activities in Syria.
Despite Russian-Israeli successful military coordination over the Syrian space, significant matters of concern remain on the agenda of Russian-Israeli relations. On December 1st Prime Minister Netanyahu officially admitted that Israel is operating in Syria from time to time and does not have the intention of stopping from doing so as it needs to protect itself from Iranian terror activities in the Golan. That is because Israel has the obligation to defend itself against the terrorist front that Iran and Hezbollah are leading against Israel while simultaneously taking part in Russia’s coalition and operations. The presence of Iranian military forces along with the forces of Hezbollah in Syria - which seek to hurt Israel’s interests while also cooperating with Russia - creates an acute dilemma for Israel, which prompts some in Israel to reconsider Jerusalem’s cooperation with Moscow. On this point Israel’s position has been and remains crystal clear and was reiterated by Prime Minister Netanyahu during his Parisian meeting with President Putin. Despite Russia’s involvement in Syria, Israel will not tolerate any hostile actions coming from the Syrian territory and will continue to keep its entire freedom of action in Syria and prevent any smuggling of arms to Hezbollah via Syrian territory. Even the deployment of Russia’s sophisticated air defense systems in Syria will not prevent the State of Israel from intervening and protecting its interests against aggression on its borders with Lebanon and Syria. In response, President Putin expressed his understanding of Israel’s position and endorsed Israel’s imperative of freedom of action.
Ultimately, Israel sees quite positively Russia’s activities in Syria while governmental and military bilateral cooperation continues to develop. Yet many questions remain with regards to Syria’s future reconfiguration and the political settlement of the Syrian civil war, the spread of terror activities across the Middle East, and the global fight against Jihadist terror. All these questions do require a continuous and smart political and military coordination between both countries.