Analysis: Israeli Army Avoids Poking Russian Bear With a Stick

IDF’s response when a Russian jet entered Israeli airspace recently sharply contrasts Turkey downing a Russian bomber last week.

A Russian Su-24 about to take off on a combat mission at an airbase in Syria, October 2015.
AP

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon offered a glimpse into the new Middle Eastern reality on Sunday. A Russian Air Force jet recently crossed the Syrian border by mistake and entered about a mile into Israeli airspace, Ya’alon revealed in an interview with Israel Radio. And how did the Israel Defense Forces respond? “We immediately got on the communications channel and [the plane] immediately returned to Syrian territory.”

So far, he added, that has been the only incident – “one small violation. It was immediately corrected.”

Ya’alon’s comment provided indirect backing to Russia’s position in its spat with Turkey over the latter’s downing last week of a Russian Su-24 bomber that allegedly crossed some two miles into Turkish airspace while carrying out airstrikes in northern Syria. Granted, Ankara claims the Russian pilots ignored its repeated warnings that they had entered its airspace. But the fact is that, under very similar circumstances, Israel acted differently.

On September 21, a few weeks after Russian warplanes deployed in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the end of the meeting, the two announced they had set up a coordination mechanism to avoid friction between their air forces. Neither side released any details of the deal, but Ya’alon’s statement sheds some light on it.

For more than a month now, Russia has been bombing Syrian rebel militias. Most of its airstrikes have been in northern Syria, but it has also conducted a few sorties in southern Syria, including on Tel al-Harra in the Golan Heights, 18 kilometers (11 miles) from Israel’s border. Yet Israel hasn’t intervened – even, as we now know, when a Russian plane accidentally entered its airspace.

Meanwhile, according to foreign media reports, the Israel Air Force has twice attacked Hezbollah convoys or weapons depots near the Damascus airport during this period. But unlike in the past, there have been no reports of Israeli airstrikes on the Alawite region of northern Syria, where the Russian jets are concentrated. In other words, ever since the giant took up residence next door, Israel has been walking on tiptoe. And so far, the two air forces have managed to avoid any direct clashes.

The nature of the Russian-Turkish tension is completely different, because Ankara is much more actively involved in Syria’s civil war – and on the opposite side to Russia. It backs the rebels, while Moscow backs President Bashar Assad’s regime. Moreover, Turkey sees itself as a regional power without whom no diplomatic solution in Syria is possible.

Nevertheless, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has softened his rhetoric significantly in the days since the Russian plane was downed last Tuesday, almost to the point of apologizing. This change is seemingly due to Russia’s military superiority, Putin’s image as someone who won’t hesitate to use military force if necessary, and the Russian president’s willingness to damage the two countries’ wide-ranging economic ties.

For now, it seems the clash with Russia has stymied one of Erdogan’s more ambitious ideas – establishing a no-fly zone along part of the Turkish-Syrian border. Erdogan, who tried for months to attract U.S. support for the idea, hoped it would achieve several goals: Restraining the Assad regime’s airstrikes in northern Syria; protecting the Turkmen minority that lives north of the Alawite region; and disrupting the territorial contiguity Kurdish militias have been trying to create on the Syrian side of the border.

Fear of this Turkish plan seems to be one of the reasons why Moscow intervened on behalf of Assad last September. Now, with Russia having responded to Turkey’s downing of its warplane by deploying advanced S-400 anti-aircraft batteries to protect its planes, the idea of a no-fly zone has become completely unrealistic.

But this deployment also affects Israel. With its ability to identify planes hundreds of kilometers away, the S-400 is a system that even the IAF will have to consider in any future Syrian operations.