After Ukraine, Officials Fear Putin Will Move to Curb Israel's Syria Operations

Defense officials are concerned that the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine may disrupt Israel's efforts to fend off Iranian entrenchment in Syria and the region

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Israeli troops during a military drill in the Golan Heights, near the Syrian border, last year.
Israeli troops during a military drill in the Golan Heights, near the Syrian border, last year.Credit: JALAA MAREY / AFP
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

Israeli officials have been closely following Russia's advance on Ukraine, as well as the West's response to it, fearing they could have serious implications on Israel's efforts to keep Iran and its regional proxies in check.

Israel has been trying to avoid any statements or actions that may upset Russia, so much so that senior defense officials were asked not to publicly comment on the situation in Ukraine. The defense establishment's main concern the obstruction of the delicate Israeli-Russian ties on Syria, where the Israeli military has been reportedly operating regularly against Iran-backed forces, namely Lebanese group Hezbollah.

In terms of military power, Israeli defense officials understand Russia clearly has the upper hand, but from an economic standpoint, President Vladimir Putin may end the war bruised and humiliated after being subjected to harsh sanctions.

Under these circumstances, Putin is more likely to change his policy on Israel's operations in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. In a bid to regain his standing, Putin could move to limit Israel's ability to act against Iranian entrenchment in the framework of the deconfliction mechanism between Israel and Russia in Syria.

Israeli officials also assess that Russia may decide to transfer more advanced weapons to Syria and other countries in the region with the aim of generating revenues from big arms deals, while also creating a new balance of terror vis-à-vis Western military forces in the Middle East.

Another concern for Israel is that Russia may employ advanced systems for disrupting GPS guidance systems and other electronic warfare measures and cyberattacks to disrupt NATO or Western operations in the Mediterranean, senior officials said. This could also restrict the Israeli military's freedom of action or disrupt military and civilian technology in Israel.

While there has been no change in Russia's policy as of yet, senior officials say that might change in the near future. A Russian statement on Friday reiterating that Moscow doesn't recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which were annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War, could be a sign of an impending shift in Putin's approach to Israel's military activity in Syria.

The latest development in Ukraine may also bring Russia closer to Iran at a sensitive time, according to the Israeli assessment. Negotiations in Vienna between Tehran and world power on Iran's nuclear program near a conclusion, diplomats involved in the talks have said in recent days.

Until recently, Israel believed that Russia was not interested in seeing a more substantial Iranian presence in Syria – a critical gateway to the Mediterranean in Putin's view – where Moscow wants to play a key part in the country's reconstruction after more than a decade of war.

Now, defense officials say they are concerned that as part of the attempt to bring Iran closer to Russia, Putin will grant Tehran more freedom to operate in Syria – much more than Israel would like to see.

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