Israel averts crisis with Russia, sees need for better coordination

Russia is keen to maintain good ties with Israel even though Tel Aviv is a foe of Moscow’s allies in Syria — Iran and Hezbollah.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Russian police guard in front of Israeli embassy in Moscow on September 18, 2018. (AFP)
Russian police guard in front of Israeli embassy in Moscow on September 18, 2018. (AFP)

LONDON - Israel is likely to resume strikes against Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah targets in Syria despite the downing of a Russian plane but Tel Aviv is expected to tread with caution so it won’t antagonise Moscow.

A Russian aircraft was shot down September 17 by Syrian defences responding to an Israeli air strike in Latakia. All 15 people on the plane died, sparking anger in Moscow.

Russian Defence Ministry officials said Israel gave them less than a minute’s warning before the strike. They accused Israeli pilots of deliberately using the Russian aircraft “as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian air defence.”

“The Israeli side bears full responsibility” for the incident and added that Russia “reserves the right to retaliate,” said Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Israel confirmed that its jets targeted a Syrian military facility allegedly providing weapons to Hezbollah but insisted the Syrian response occurred after the Israeli planes left Syrian territory.

“Israel is determined to stop Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and the attempts by Iran, which calls for the destruction of Israel, to transfer to Hezbollah lethal weaponry (to be used) against Israel,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Israel expressed “sorrow” for the deaths of the Russians but blamed the downing of the plane on “extensive and inaccurate Syrian anti-aircraft fire.” It promised to provide Russia with “with all necessary information to investigate the incident,” said a statement from Netanyahu’s office.

Russian President Vladimir Putin eased tensions by describing the incident as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances” and stressed that Israel did not down the Russian nor did it intend to cause it harm.

Putin called on Israel “not to allow such situations to happen again” and vowed to take “additional steps to protect [Russian] servicemen and assets in Syria.” He accepted Israel’s offer to share information on the incident.

Strong Putin-Netanyahu ties

Observers said the good relationship between Putin and Netanyahu, who have met nine times since September 2015, prevented an escalation of the incident.

“Until now, Russia’s armed forces have granted Israeli jets the freedom to strike targets in Syria at will, on the condition that a sufficiently early warning is provided to Russia,” Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Middle East Institute in Washington, told the Associated Press. “The glue binding this gentleman’s agreement — the Putin-Netanyahu personal relationship — will likely tide this issue over for the time being.”

Russia is keen to maintain good ties with Israel even though Tel Aviv is a foe of Moscow’s allies in Syria — Iran and Hezbollah.

“For Russia, Israel is not only an important, geopolitical partner with presumed nuclear capabilities, situated in the heart of the world’s most turbulent region, it’s also home to about 1.3 million people born in post-Soviet countries. This large diaspora plays a significant role for Russia when it tailors its approach to Tel Aviv,” said an unattributed article published on the website of the Russian media outlet RT.

Israel recently confirmed attacking Iranian and Hezbollah targets inside Syria some 200 times since 2017. Friendly fire incidents between Israel and Russia appear to have been avoided thanks to a hotline between Tel Aviv and Moscow to coordinate in Syria. On the Israeli end of the hotline are reportedly Russian-speaking Israeli military officers to reduce the risk of miscommunication.

Observers said the latest Israeli strikes were a warning to Syria’s Assad regime and Iran.

“Putin recognises that Netanyahu wanted to send a message to the Syrian regime in the direct aftermath of the Idlib agreement between Moscow and Ankara but Israel also wanted to send a message to Iran and Hezbollah that, despite Idlib, there would be more targeted strikes,” Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, wrote in Arab News.

Although a diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Tel Aviv has been avoided, Israel will have to increase the level of coordination with Russia in Syria.

“There will likely be some changes to the deconfliction protocols between the [Israeli forces] and their Russian counterparts in Syria,” said a report published by the Soufan Centre, a think-tank in New York.

Tel Aviv is likely to seek to accommodate Moscow because a Russian backlash would hinder Israel’s involvement in Syria.

“If Russia decides to demonstrate a hard line for an extended period, it is capable of interfering with Israel’s freedom of action in the Syrian skies,” wrote Haaretz defence analyst Amos Harel.

“Russia could, for example, demand from Israel an even earlier warning before it strikes, it could enforce a no-fly-zone for Israeli fighter jets near its bases in northern Syria or it could supply Assad’s army with new aerial defence systems it has so far withheld.”

Even if Russia does not make matters more difficult, Israel faces serious challenges when it comes to attacking suspected Iranian or Hezbollah targets in Latakia, which Israel had made off limits.

“The port city of Latakia is considered to be Syria’s main port city, the centre of Bashar Assad’s Alawite Islamic sect and a symbol of the survival of the Assad regime. Beyond this, however, it is also marked by a significant Russian presence,” wrote Avi Issacharoff in the Times of Israel.