À la Guerre Comme à la Guerre, or All’s Fair in Love and War

The gravity of Russia’s ongoing military operations in Syria requires that Russia maintain regular contact with Israel, whose territory borders the conflict area, and coordinate its military operations with Israel.

It was logical then that President Vladimir Putin had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the UN Climate Conference in Paris. The downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber by the Turkish Air Force on November 24 over an alleged airspace violation was the dramatic result of a lack of understanding between the parties in Syria, providing even more reason for the sides to meet.

Shortly before the two leaders met in Paris, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in a November 29 interview with Israel Radio that a Russian plane on a mission in Syria had recently breached Israel’s airspace. The minister said they had contacted the Russian pilot and that “small infraction” was “immediately corrected through our communications channel.” This is why Netanyahu said in Paris before his tête-à-tête with Putin that “the events of recent days prove the importance of our coordination, our de-confliction mechanisms, and our attempts to cooperate with each other to prevent unnecessary accidents and tragedies. I believe we have been successful.”

Israel has been trying to keep a distance from the Syrian conflict and has claimed non-interference in fighting between Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. However, Israel keeps a close eye on the situation in the bordering Golan Heights in order to prevent the possible concentration of forces on its borders that could threaten its security. Israel also continues to bomb convoys that, according to its intelligence, deliver weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. When Russia began its operations in Syria, Israel immediately secured an agreement with the Russian side to preserve its ability to conduct raids in order to protect its national security.

But the freedom of the Israeli AF actions in the conflict zone is limited now that Russia has increased its military presence in Syria following Turkey’s downing of the Russian bomber. Russia has dispatched the S 400 air defense systems to Syria amid growing tensions in relations with Turkey. The Israeli Air Force will have to remember that these modern missile systems have a targeting range of several hundred kilometers.

In this situation, Russia and Israel need to exchange information and to coordinate their operations in Syria. This is why Putin and Netanyahu have agreed in Paris to set up a joint working group of their militaries.

Russian-Israeli coordination is now stronger than ever in the history of bilateral relations. Russia views Israel as a partner, which is almost incredible, considering that Soviet assistance to Israel’s enemies – Egypt and Syria – pitted the two countries against each other several decades ago. Today the Israeli prime minister says it’s not in Israel’s interest to quarrel with such a global power as Russia.

At the same time, Russia’s growing involvement in the Middle East raises questions in Israel. Will Russia use available opportunities to weaken Iran’s influence in Syria? Due to close relations between al-Assad’s Alawite regime and Iran, Syria has become a transshipment point for the delivery of weapons and other assistance to anti-Israeli forces, primarily a Shia paramilitary organization, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Israelis are concerned that the Iranian Islamic Republican Guard, whose proclaimed mission is to erase Israel from the map of the region, can advance towards the Israeli border via Syria. Will Moscow listen to Israel’s concerns when the Syrian crisis enters a stage of political settlement?

Israel shares Russia’s goal in Syria, which is to fight terrorist groups, primarily ISIS. But until recently, the Israeli authorities considered the Islamist ideology and ISIS as a secondary threat. In light of the so-called Knife Intifada or daily stabbing assaults on Israelis by Palestinian youth who draw inspiration from ISIS websites, and the growing ISIS influence on the Sinai Peninsula in close proximity to its southern borders, Israel needs to review its attitude to the new challenges and to consider possible ways to deal with them.

If Russia and the West agree to coordinate their operations against ISIS, will Israel become part of this struggle, and if so, what role could it play in the joint fight against the growing threat of Islamic radicalism? The nascent confidential relations between the Russian and Israeli leaders should help find answers to these concerns.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.