Putin attends a plenary session at the Eurasian Women's Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, September 20, 2018. \ POOL/ REUTERS

Putin Now Has Leverage Over Israel, and No Reason to Give It Up

Russia will presumably try to curb Israel’s freedom of action over Syria, even if the Israeli inquiry found no fault. Either way, Trump is conspicuous in his absence

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Air force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin fulfilled his mission, but Moscow isn’t rushing to declare the issue of the downed Russian spy plane last Monday settled.

The Israeli military reported professional, businesslike conversations with the Russian air force officers to whom they presented the findings of Israel’s inquiry into the plane’s downing by Syrian anti-aircraft fire during an Israeli strike near Latakia in northern Syria. But a Kremlin spokesman said Friday that even though Russian President Vladimir Putin had been briefed on Norkin’s presentation, only Defense Ministry experts could decide whether Israel’s information was sufficient.

The final decision will be made by Putin, not the professionals. But Russia has spoken in multiple voices since the incident.

The Defense Ministry, which issued a statement threatening Israel the day after the incident, is taking a hard line. Putin himself spoke softly, almost forgivingly, about a series of tragic mistakes. And Russian officers in contact with Israeli colleagues dealt mainly with professional issues – what caused the incident and what should be fixed to prevent a recurrence.

The inquiry, whose findings Norkin first presented in a large forum and then privately to his Russian counterpart, found no flaw in the air force’s conduct. Israel, it concluded, acted in necessary self-defense to prevent equipment for making precision weapons from being smuggled from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Russia was warned in time, in line with previous agreements. The attacking planes were already landing in Israel when the Russian plane was hit. Syria’s air defense batteries fired in all directions, more than 20 missiles, without taking the necessary precautions to ensure that no Russian planes were nearby.

But despite Israel’s unusual openness and the speed with which it relayed its information, Israeli defense officials have no illusions. The incident, which killed 15 Russian soldiers, creates some embarrassment at home for Russia’s government. And the Russians were already unhappy with the scale and intensity of Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

The U.S. flag flutters on a military vehicle in Manbej countryside, Syria, May 12, 2018. \ ABOUD HAMAM/ REUTERS

Thus, now that Putin has a new lever for pressuring Israel, it’s hard to see him failing to use it just because of his friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite the two leaders’ close relationship, Russia will certainly try to exploit this incident to the hilt.

New bilateral understandings apparently haven’t yet been finalized and probably won’t be publicized. But at least in the short term, Russia will presumably try to put some restrictions on Israel’s freedom of action, either by distancing Israeli planes from Russian bases in northern Syria or by demanding greater advance notice of every strike.

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evertheless, the Israeli-Russian deconfliction mechanism has resumed operating. Friday morning, Israeli and Russian planes approached unusually near each other, but the issue was immediately resolved via the air force’s hotline to Russia’s base near Latakia.

A third country was notably absent from the Russian-Israeli tensions caused by the downed plane – the United States. Until a few years ago, Washington was involved in almost every important Mideast development. A good example is UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The United States and France were heavily involved in drafting it, but Russia, which also has a permanent Security Council seat, was almost completely uninvolved.

Today the situation is reversed. Putin is the landlord in Syria; U.S. President Donald Trump is at best a secondary player.

This trend began with the Obama administration’s inaction in Syria but intensified under Trump. The current administration seeks to block Iran and punish the Palestinian Authority, but it isn’t confronting Russia in Syria. Trump only reluctantly acceded to his advisers’ urgings to leave a small American force in Syria to impede Iran’s efforts to create a contiguous belt of influence in eastern Syria, near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.

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