Analysis

Russia's Tough Rhetoric Shows Israel Is Losing Its Leeway With the Kremlin

Moscow was the first to attribute the airstrike on the Syrian military base to Israel. But its fierce criticism of Israel's policy in the territories is the true warning sign

Iran's President Hassan Rohani and Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Tolga Bozoglu/AP

Two days after the “holy fire” was brought from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to Moscow, another, much more dangerous fire broke out between the two capitals. In a series of harsh statements, Russia made it clear to Israel that it did not intend to continue to act like the monkey who sees nothing and ignores Israeli attacks in Syria. Not only was Moscow the first to “reveal” that Israel had attacked the Syrian base near Homs. The disclosure made clear that Russia had not been warned in advance of the attack, meaning that the coordination between Israel and Russia that has allowed the Israel Air Force to operate in Syria was carried out in this case.

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Though Russia did not respond to this apparent violation with a formal threat or a warning other than to “express concern,” there may be implications for the continued military coordination which is so vital to Israel. But Russia was not content with just describing the violation. It also issued a sharp, pointed message about Israel’s policy in the territories.

Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinians is discriminatory and unacceptable, Russia said, adding that Israel “used indiscriminate force against civilians,” in reference to attacks in Gaza against the March of Return demonstrators.

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This is a grave development because even though Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet of world powers, it has for years been acting as a distant observer that did not interfere in the diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, leaving those for the United States to manage. More importantly, a series of political understandings developed between Jerusalem and Moscow that played well in Israel, such as the extraordinary statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a year ago that he views West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, even as he agreed that the status of Jerusalem will be determined in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

This was contrary to Russia’s traditional position that Jerusalem should be under an international regime, and it came months before official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital by U.S. President Donald Trump. While the Russian declaration did not prevent Moscow from denouncing Trump’s decision, Russia repeated its recognition of West Jerusalem when the Russian Foreign Ministry last week praised the intelligent position of "West Jerusalem" not to be dragged into the anti-Russian hysteria, following the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Britain.

But the political leeway that Russia has given Israel on the Palestinian issue, together with the military coordination between the two air forces, doesn’t come for free. Russia expects Israel to act as an ally that understands Russian interests on other fronts, particularly in Syria. Russia does not need in-depth explanations of Israel’s determination to prevent the transfer of arms from Syria to Hezbollah, and, like Israel, it is acting in its own way to try to curb Iran’s influence. For example, Russia is standing in the way of Iranian gains when it comes to future economic agreements. It is dictating the borders of the security zone. It is controlling and managing a series of cease-fire agreements between the rebels and the Syrian regime, and, as was demonstrated during the evacuation of Aleppo, it is prepared to confront Iran when it interferes with the diplomatic process that Russia is fashioning.

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Russia, however, will not allow Israel to upset the delicate balance in its relations with either Iran or with the Syrian regime through continuous attacks, whether directed at Syrian or Iranian targets. Although Russia dictates most of the strategic, military and political moves in the region, it does not completely control Iran’s possible responses and cannot guarantee that a Syrian unit will not decide to respond independently to an Israeli attack. Such attacks would be a dangerous recipe for military escalation and the opening of another front against Israel, which could also suck the United States back into Syria precisely when it is on the brink of disengaging and withdrawing from this front.

Israel has declared that it will prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria but hasn’t made clear just how it plans to achieve this. Does Israel intend to carry out a series of attacks on bases used by Iranian forces or pro-Iranian militias, or is it planning to try to physically seize territory on the Syrian Golan Heights to create a buffer zone, similar to the Turkish takeover of its border areas with Syria to neutralize the military capabilities of the Kurds? Both options concern Moscow, which will neither agree nor be able to act as Israel’s border policeman.

Moreover, if Israel is trying to indicate to Russia that Moscow will have to act against Iran if it does not want Israel to do so, it may find itself facing a Russian reminder of just who the superpower is, and not just on the Syrian front. Russia’s stern comment on what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank should serve as a warning of the limits of Russia’s tolerance.

Unlike the unpredictable Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already proved that he has no qualms about locking horns with other countries, imposing tough sanctions and of course using military force when he thinks Russia’s interests calls for it. Israel realizes that in Syria, there is no longer a war between the superpowers in which satellite states tag along behind “their” superpower. This front belongs to a single superpower and anyone who wants to operate there has to play by its rules.