Russian Meddling in Syria Drives Netanyahu to Moscow

Aside from reducing risk of unwanted clash between Israeli and Russian fighter jets, PM's visit should be seen in a wider context of tensions between Moscow and Washington.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin during his last visit to Moscow in 2013. Credit: AP

The immediate reason for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow on Monday is increased Russian military involvement in Syria.

On Sunday, the first satellite photos were released from the air base that Russia is building on the Alawite strip of coast in northern Syria near Latakia. Netanyahu, who in an unusual step is taking Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, with him and, at the last minute, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, will devote much of his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to preventing direct friction between Israel and Russia in the north.

The aircraft photographed in northern Syria are Sukhoi 27s. Their main mission, according to experts on the Russian Air Force, is to ensure aerial superiority, not bombardment. That underscores the assessment that Russia has not sent its forces to the region just to fight Islamic State, which is what Russia stresses in justifying its new military deployment, but that Moscow wants to establish a more significant presence. Anti-aircraft batteries will apparently also be deployed to protect the base, as well as a small number of ground forces, tanks, APCs, and a special low-profile unit, in what is reminiscent of Russia’s conduct in the war in Ukraine.

But beyond reducing the risk of an unwanted clash between Israeli and Russian fighter jets over Syria or Lebanon, it seems that the visit should be seen in a wider context of tensions between Moscow and Washington.

And although Netanyahu only last week said “commentators” were wrong when they warned of a collapse of ties between Israel and the United States in light of the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu’s current visit to Moscow could be seen as an Israeli jab at Washington. The visit seems to reflect Netanyahu’s lack of faith in the ability or the intent of the United States to protect Israel’s security interests.

The visit cannot be considered good news in Washington, which led a campaign of condemnation and sanctions against Moscow over its involvement in the war in Ukraine last summer. (Israel did not take a position on that conflict and was duly rewarded by Russia which issued a moderate response to Israel’s actions in the war on Gaza shortly thereafter.)

The turning point in Russia’s policy in Syria can be traced to about a month ago. It's interesting that it was a report from Israel — Yedioth Ahronoth’s report on the deployment of Russian fighter jets in northern Syria — that brought the issue to the attention of the world media. A few days later the American media began talking about it. It looks like Jerusalem is encouraging the publication of reports public of developments that would force the United States to intervene. But this time, Netanyahu is adding his high-profile visit to Russia.

Security sources in Israel who are knowledgeable about preparations for the visit said that Israel wants to ensure that Russian planes will not restrict the Israel Air Force’s freedom of movement on the northern border and will not lead to accidents or aerial battles. To this end, there will be an attempt to set rules of caution and perhaps a coordination procedure. Israel will also tell Russia that it would only consider intervening in Syria if red lines are crossed — namely, terror against Israel from Syrian territory, or an attempt to move advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

These two red lines are connected to Russia. Most of the advanced arms Syria is getting are Russian. And with regard to terror, Israel is concerned over the third member of the partnership keeping Assad’s regime alive — Iran. Last year there was a series of attacks in the enclave still held by Assad’s forces in the northern end of the Syrian border with Israel in the Golan Heights. It is reasonable to assume that Israel will ask for Russia’s help in reining in attacks led by Iran from the border in the Golan.

Another question preoccupying Israel involves the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Druze in the Jabal al-Druze region near the border with Jordan. The Druze have in recent months been trying to distance themselves from Assad’s regime, threatened as they are from east and west by Sunni rebel forces.

Israel has in the past asked the United States to help protect the Druze in light of concern by Druze in Israel and in the Golan Heights for their brethren in Syria. A similar request might be addressed to Putin.

In an article this week in the magazine Foreign Affairs, the Israeli scholar Dr. Dima Adamsky describes Russia’s current policy in the region as a new and expanded version of Soviet intervention for Egypt during the War of Attrition, 45 years ago.

Adamsky, of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, writes that the operation was considered a success because the contingent of forces and adviser it sent saved the Egyptian regime and deterred Israel. According to Adamsky, Russia’s new assertiveness in the Middle East serves its supreme goal: attaining regional status parallel to that of the United States, in addition to secondary goals such as creating a buffer zone against jihadists that could strike Russia from the south.

Russia, Adamsky writes, sees the Arab Spring five years ago as the result of mistaken American Middle Eastern policy and the upheaval in the region almost directly hurt Russian interests when it led to the toppling of Gadhafi’s regime in Libya and endangered Assad’s regime.

Russia is also working on improving ties with Sunni countries – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Russia played an important role in the agreement two years ago on the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and to a certain extent also helped put together the Iranian nuclear agreement in Vienna.

Russia hopes to parlay its renewed ties with Egypt and Syria into arms deals and economic contracts with countries in the region. In Moscow, Netanyahu and Eizenkot will be meeting a major player in the region, who long ago stopped making do with playing second fiddle to the United States.

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