Netanyahu resets relations with Moscow on Syria

The meeting is particularly important to Netanyahu, who is anxious to score domestic political points in his campaign for re-election and determined to close the Russian file on the September incident.
Monday 25/02/2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, last July. (AP)
Deconfliction. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, last July. (AP)

Russia’s military deployment in September 2017 was prompted by Moscow’s determination to preserve the regime in Damascus but it has been clear from the outset that Moscow’s intervention has the potential to threaten an Israeli security strategy based on unchallenged control of the skies from Beirut to the Iraqi-Iranian border and the Straits of Hormuz.

The very presence of Russian forces in Syria and Moscow’s demand for “coordination” represents an unprecedented challenge to this strategy.

Understandably concerned to contain the damage caused by the Russian deployment,Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made it his business to maintain close coordination to preserve Israel’s vaunted freedom of action against Syrian, Iranian or Hezbollah targets anywhere in Syria.

Netanyahu has had undeniable success in this regard. Under the terms of the Netanyahu-Putin understandings, not only have Iranian forces been distanced from the Golan border, Israel has conducted “hundreds” of military attacks throughout Syria against members of the “Axis of Resistance” in the campaign to contain the threat they pose to Israel and to deter expansion of their military deployment on the ground.

Moscow sees little benefit in policing Israel’s activities in Syria in addition to its formidable responsibilities in the country. Nor does it have an interest in being drawn into the dangerous Israel-Iran-Hezbollah drama.

Israel’s attacks, conducted under the accommodating eye of Moscow, have been arguably successful on the tactical level but Israel has failed in its strategic objectives of preventing the transfer of increasingly sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah’s arsenal and forcing an Iranian retreat from Syria.

The incident in September, when an uncoordinated Israeli military operation led to the downing of a Russian military aircraft by a Syrian-manned anti-aircraft battery, exposed the inherent fragility of Israel’s bargain with Moscow.

After the incident, which Moscow blamed on Israel, Russia unilaterally changed the rules of the game. It reportedly demanded earlier notice of Israeli operations in Syria. Of greater concern to Israel, Russia transferred to Syrian control more advanced anti-aircraft batteries, along with radars, targeting systems and command posts.

Syria had long sought the system to challenge the virtual impunity with which Israel has violated Syrian airspace. This weapon system is reported to have recently become active.

“After the incident of September 17, we could not leave things as they were. Russia responded in a contained but firm manner,” explained Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Avigdor Lieberman, then the Israeli Defence Minister, betrayed the stakes of the dispute with Russia when he declared that “we will not accept any restrictions on our freedom of operation and when it comes to national security, we will take action.”

Ties between Israel and Russia remain strained some five months later, with the Russian deputy foreign minister recently saying that the incident had not been “left behind” and calling on Israel to cease “unlawful” air strikes in Syria.

Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to Moscow is aimed at putting the September incident to rest in a manner that does not constrain what remains a tactically useful but strategically deficient Israeli policy for addressing the challenges in Syria posed by Hezbollah and Iran.

“I will meet in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. We will continue discussing enhancing coordination mechanism to avoid clashes between the Israeli and Russian military,” Netanyahu said February 17 at a cabinet meeting.

“This is vital, especially for our efforts on ensuring Israel’s freedom of steps against Iran and its satellites, who declare plans to use Syria as a front of their war to destroy Israel,” he added.

Russian has demonstrated its power in Syria to defeat the opposition and rescue Syrian President Bashar Assad and the regime he represents. Coordination with Israel and the more limited “deconfliction” dialogue with Washington can be counted as unprecedented achievements in the history of Russian and, before that, Soviet policy in the region.

Yet, if Israel has little choice but to acquiesce in the commanding presence of Russian forces in Syria it must also reconcile itself to the strategic costs imposed as a consequence, and the limits of Russian interest in making Israel’s enemies its own.

Geoffrey Aronson is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.