At the end of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel and Russia will formulate a coordination mechanism to prevent misunderstandings and unintended confrontations between the Israel Air Force and the Russian Air Force in the skies over Syria.
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Netanyahu did not provide any details, so it is unclear whether a hotline will be set up to connect the Kremlin to the Israel Air Force headquarters in Tel Aviv. The two sides agreed to establish a joint committee headed by the deputy chiefs of staff from both militaries to coordinate activities in the air, sea and electromagnetic arenas on the Syrian front in order to prevent incidents between them.
It seems that the short and urgent trip Netanyahu took with his military A-team, which included IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi, was intended to soften up a bit the new security situation that Russia has forced on the region with its decision to deploy its combat aircraft in northern Syria.
It seems that Israel has more faith in setting red lines than in a hotline to the Kremlin. Israel seeks to establish spheres of influence in Syria and Lebanon in which it will continue to operate freely if it so needs, without risking an unintended conflict with Russian warplanes
Since January 2013, the international press has reported on over 10 Israeli aerial attacks against arms warehouses and convoys heading from Syria to Lebanon on their way to transfer advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. A few of these attacks took place near Latakia, in the Alawite region in northwest Syria. According to the foreign reports, the weapons carried by the convoys and stored in the warehouses targeted in these attacks included long-range Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles. This is exactly the area where the Russians are now establishing an air base, alongside their naval port in Tartus.
From the minute Moscow established facts on the ground, it is hard to imagine an Israeli aerial attack near the Russian planes and antiaircraft systems, which are certainly being deployed to defend the base. But other attacks attributed to Israel occurred in the area of Damascus and near the border in the Golan Heights, targeting terrorist cells armed and guided by Iran. It is possible that Israel wants to guarantee its continued freedom of operation in these areas by marking its territory of influence. Israel and Syria have had similar informal agreements concerning Lebanon during the period of the Lebanese civil war in the mid-1970s.
Reinforcing the Russian presence in northern Syria is meant to guarantee two interconnected goals: Preserving Syria as a Russian asset and allowing for the survival of the Assad regime. The nature of this deployment – establishing a large base, sending fighter jets whose mission is to provide aerial superiority and the deployment of defensive systems such as anti-aircraft weapons – shows that Russia is not making do with just its declared goal of upgrading its fight against the Islamic State.
This enhanced deployment of forces will provide aerial cover for Assad's military efforts, along with intensive Iranian aid. Recently some 1,500 additional Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops have been sent to the area to help stop the advance of a combined front of Syrian rebel organizations against the Alawite region along the northwestern Syrian coast.
It is possible that another incentive for the Russian decision was the Turkish efforts to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Ankara has been dropping hints about its intentions, with a certain amount of encouragement from Washington, for months. Declaring such a no-fly zone would very much limit Assad's efforts to attack the rebels from the air. With the Russians around, it is unlikely that Turkey could carry out these plans.