Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2018, pp. 44-45
Russian-Israeli Conflict in the Skies of Syria
By Paul R. Pillar
THE SUDDEN RUFFLING OF ISRAELI-RUSSIAN RELATIONS over the accidental shootdown by Syria of a Russian surveillance aircraft, killing 15 crew members, is the sort of incident apt to happen when a modus vivendi joins parties with much different perspectives, one of them broad and the other narrow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has the broad perspective. His policies toward both Syria and Israel are part of a strategy of making Russia an important player throughout the Middle East. It is a good realist strategy, worthy of emulation, in which Russia talks with everybody and does not allow any rigid division of the region into friends and foes to constrain its diplomacy. Putin has played his cards skillfully and has made his government a more broadly influential interlocutor in the Middle East than the United States despite having expended far fewer resources in the region than the United States has over the last couple of decades.
Dealing with Israel has not compromised the Russian commitment to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad or the reasons for that commitment. To the contrary, consultations with the Israelis have provided useful deconfliction of military operations and probably have prevented something like last week’s downing of the Russian plane from happening much sooner. Russia’s objectives are also served to the extent it can nudge Israel to focus on targets that have more to do with Iran and Hezbollah and less to do with the Syrian regime.
The Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu—who has traveled to Moscow to confer with Putin three times so far this year—has the narrower perspective of seeking to throw its military weight around outside its borders with impunity. Its focus in Syria is on Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Neither of those two players could hope to overcome Israel’s military superiority in the area, but for the Israeli government it is the impunity that matters as much as the ability to launch strikes. Its strikes in Syria over the past two years—now numbering at about 200—are exactly the kind of operation for which the Israelis do not want to have to worry much about costs and complications.
Military deconfliction, given the extent of both Israeli and Russian military operations in Syria, thus has been as useful to Israel as it has been to Russia. Israel also has tried to do some of its own nudging, especially in getting the Russians to get the Iranians to keep their distance from the line of control along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
There may be some misunderstanding, in Israel as there sometimes seems to be in the United States, about that last dimension, involving Russian-Iranian relations. Although Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime have been functioning as allies in the Syrian war, they each have their own, partly differing, interests. None of them can command the others to do what they believe to be contrary to their interests. Herein lie ingredients for what could be additional ruffles in the Israeli-Russian relationship.
Last week’s incident, however, had more to do with Israel’s propensity for seeking absolute security for itself even at the expense of absolute insecurity for others. It has kept up its series of attacks in a neighboring state even when, in this specific incident, that state felt sufficiently threatened to start firing back. Russia lost 15 of its service members as a result. Russia—which, unlike the United States , feels no domestic political pressure to sweep under the rug a loss of its countrymen’s lives due to Israeli action in a war zone—eventually had to speak out forcefully. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was “compelled” to respond further by providing Syria with Russia’s S-300 air defense system, which is more sophisticated than the system Syria already had.
Uncertainties linger about the details of exactly what happened in the Syrian skies Sept. 17, and this uncertainty may account for early inconsistency in Russia’s response, which went from hard to soft and back to hard. Russia alleges that Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as “cover” from Syria air defenses. Israel denies that allegation and says its planes had already returned to Israeli airspace when the air-defense missile was fired. In the end, what must have mattered in Russian thinking was the fact that if Israel had not been attacking targets in Syria, the missile never would have been fired.
This dispute and its accompanying ill will are unlikely to lead to fundamental changes either in military operations in Syria or in Russian-Israeli diplomacy. The upgrade of Syrian air defenses will complicate but not stop the Israeli attacks. There may be similar incidents in the future owing to the practical difficulty of separating what belongs to Syria (which Israel, having grown comfortable with the Assad regime as “the devil we know,” is not currently seeking to fight a war against) from what belongs to its Iranian and Hezbollah allies. (The Israel Defense Forces stated that its operation last week targeted a Syrian facility that was about to transfer weapons to Hezbollah on behalf of Iran.) But both Russia and Israel will continue to have the same reasons as before to do business with each other.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at The National Interest, where this was first published on Sept. 25, 2018. He’s the author of Why America Misunderstands the World. Copyright © 2018 LobeLog. All rights reserved.
To Russia With Love
By Gideon Levy
A RAY OF HOPE IS BREAKING THROUGH: Someone is setting limits on Israel. For the first time in years another state is making it clear to Israel that there are restrictions to its power, that it’s not okay for it to do whatever it wants, that it’s not alone in the game, that America can’t always cover for it and that there’s a limit to the harm it can do.
Israel needed someone to set these limits like it needed oxygen. The recent years’ hubris and geopolitical reality enabled it to run rampant. It could patrol Lebanon’s skies as if they were its own; bombard in Syria’s air space as if it were Gaza’s air space; destroy Gaza periodically, put it under endless siege and continue, of course, to occupy the West Bank. Suddenly someone stood up and said: Stop right there. At least in Syria: That’s the end of it. Thank you, Mother Russia, for setting limits on a child whom no one has restrained for a long time.
The Israeli stupefaction at the Russian response and the paralysis that gripped it only showed how much Israel needed a responsible adult to rein it in. Does anyone dare prevent Israel’s freedom of movement in another country? Is anyone hindering it from flying in skies not its own? Is anyone keeping it from bombing as much as it pleases? For decades Israel hasn’t encountered such a strange phenomenon. Israel Hayom reported, of course, that anti-Semitism is growing in Russia. Israel is getting ready to play the next victim card, but its arrogance has suddenly gone missing.
In April the Bloomberg News agency cited threats from retired Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and other officers that if Russia gives Syria S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, Israel’s air force would bombard them. Now the voice of bluster from Zion has been muted, at least for the moment.
Every state is entitled to have weapons for defense against jet bombers, including Syria, and no state is permitted to prevent that forcibly. This basic truth already sounds bizarre to Israeli ears. The idea that other countries’ sovereignty is meaningless, that it can always be disrupted by force, and that Israeli sovereignty alone is sacred and supreme; that Israel can mix in the affairs of the region to its heart’s content— including by military intervention, whose true extent is yet to be clarified in the war in Syria—without paying a price, in the name of its real or imagined security, which sanctifies anything and everything—all this has suddenly run into a Russian “nyet.” Oh, how we needed that nyet, to restore Israel to its real dimensions.
It arrived with excellent timing. Just when there’s a president in the White House who runs his Middle East policy at the instructions of his sponsor in Las Vegas and mentor on Balfour Street; when Israel feels itself in seventh heaven, with an American Embassy in Jerusalem and no UNRWA, soon without the Palestinians—came the flashing red light from Moscow. Perhaps it will balance out, just a bit, the intoxication with power that has overtaken Israel in recent years, maybe it will start to wise up and recover.
Russia, without meaning to, may yet turn out to be better for Israel than all the insane, corrupting support it receives from the current American administration, and from its predecessors, too.
Russia has outlined for the world the way to treat Israel, using the only language Israel understands. Let those who truly care for Israel’s welfare, and for justice, learn how it’s done: Only by force. Only when Israel gets punished or is forced to pay a price does it do the right thing. The air force will think twice now and perhaps many times more before its next bombardment in Syria, whose importance, if indeed it has any, is unknown.
Had such a Russian “nyet” hovered above Gaza’s skies, too, so much futile death and destruction would have been spared. Had an international force faced the Israeli occupation, it would have ended long ago. Instead, we have Donald Trump in Washington and the European Union’s pathetic denunciations of the evictions at Khan Al-Ahmar.
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