Russia’s military intervention in Syria is continuing full steam ahead. Russian air strikes are successfully tipping the balance in favor of the Assad regime, which is now making strong gains in Aleppo.
Israel cannot escape the consequences of Moscow’s growing presence in the region.
For Israel, Russia’s role Syria has several pressing ramifications. At the top of the list is the deployment of advanced Russian weapons systems ‘next door.’ Russian air defense systems provide coverage over Syria – and cover most of Israel’s air space as well. These systems can detect Israel Air Force (IAF) activities.
In addition, Russia has surveillance ships in the Mediterranean that can gather intelligence and track all electro-magnetic activities within the State of Israel. This means Russia has systems in place that can detect and track Israeli aerial and sea-based military activities.
The most disturbing potential development, from Israel’s perspective, would be the transfer of advanced Russian weapons systems to Hezbollah. That could limit the IAF and the Israel Navy as they conduct routine security operations around Lebanon. These same Russian systems could also constrain Israel during a conflict with Hezbollah.
However, it is important to note that Russia is no enemy of Israel.
Russian President Vladimir Putin entered Syria because he is taking advantage of an opportunity to strengthen his country’s international standing, and Moscow’s standing in the Middle East.
By sticking with President Assad and saving his regime, Putin is broadcasting to all regional actors that Russia does not abandon its friends. Russia will not allow this central ally to fall. At the same time, its intervention protects strategic Russian assets such as the warm water Russian naval port of Tartus on the Syrian coast.
Israel and Russia have been able to set up a successful deconfliction mechanism, in which the defense establishments of both countries can speak to one another to avoid misunderstandings.
And yet, all of Russia’s steps have been taken unilaterally, without taking the Israeli perspective into account.
The fact that Russia maintains good ties with the Iranians, with the Assad regime, and with the radical Shi’ite axis, is significant and inescapable from Israel’s attention.
Russia’s enhanced role has enabled radical members of the Shi’ite Iran-led axis to arm themselves, gain confidence, and ensure their survivability.
Still, there are two sides to this coin. Russia’s increased presence in the region has also had a moderating influence on Hezbollah and Iran. The Russians do not wish to see Hezbollah and Israel enter into a conflict, which could severely disrupt efforts to prop up and stabilize the Assad regime. Thus, Russia is reigning in Hezbollah when it comes to Israel.
On the flip side, the Russian presence is providing an umbrella for Hezbollah and, in many ways, it is already limiting the activities of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Russia’s surface to air missiles, and growing air and sea military assets in the region, constitute serious potential challenges for the IDF.
Viewed from a wider lense, events in Syria could be sewing the seeds for even greater regional chaos just around the corner – chaos that could affect the whole of the area, including Israel.
Currently, there are no mechanisms in place that would allow Russia, the US, and regional actors to plan for the day after the fall of ISIS’s caliphate. In the absence of any central control, wars in Syria will continue, and could become even more cruel, attracting other radical actors.
If, on the other hand, US President Elect Donald Trump and President Putin are able to build cooperation in Syria, and begin to work together, this would be a welcome development, both for the region and for Israel.
Russia’s strategy right now is to avoid cooperation with the US, and to focus its firepower on the goal of assisting the Assad regime, with ISIS very much forming a marginal target for Moscow’s campaign. This creates a major clash of interests with the US, which is primarily targeting ISIS in Syria.
Israel, as the closest American ally, has been placed in a complex and sensitive position in the face of the renewed American-Russian rivalry.
In the crowded airspace over Syria, fighter jets from various states or coalitions could inadvertently clash due to a lack of coordination.
Israel must view this situation with concern, and formulate policies to deal with the fast-changing, complex reality in Syria.
These policies should seek to ensure that Israel’s responses to developments in Syria remain localized. Israeli humanitarian aid to southern Syria is a worthy moral imperative that should continue.
Beyond that, however, Israel should seek to keep out of this ultra-sensitive arena, while preparing responses to a wide array of contingencies.
Israel must also continue to enforce its crucial red line against attempts to use Syria as a transit point, for the trafficking of strategic weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Edited by Yaakov Lappin
Co-Edited by Benjamin Anthony
Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.