In the short time it took between the firing of an SA-5 anti-aircraft missile against Israel Air Force planes on a “routine reconnaissance mission” over Lebanon and the decision to bomb the Syrian missile battery in response, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were well aware that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu would be landing in Israel within hours on Monday morning. It doesn’t seem to have caused them to hesitate – barely two hours passed from the moment the Syrians fired on Israeli aircraft until the battery was hit.
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The attack on the so-called “Ramadan” SA-5 battery, which was situated about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Damascus, was well within the area covered by Russian anti-aircraft batteries and fighter planes operating from the Khmeimim air base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. It was preceded by Israeli notification to the Russians through the hotline that connects their operations center in Khmeimim and IAF headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Over two years since the Russians first deployed their forces in Syria, the military coordination between Israel and Russia is still operating surprisingly smoothly.
On the ground, Russia is working together with President Bashar Assad’s regime and other allies – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah. In the sky, it continues to allow Israel to operate when needed against its own allies. Most of the strikes attributed to Israel, unlike Monday’s, remain unacknowledged by Jerusalem, and Russia turns a blind eye to them.
Some Israeli military planners have been surprised that Russia hasn’t acted to curb Israeli operations in its new sphere of influence. But those close to President Vladimir Putin’s thinking were already predicting such a situation in September 2015, when the first Russian Sukhoi aircraft landed in Khmeimim.
Putin has a high appreciation of Israel’s military capabilities and believes he can work together with Netanyahu. As far as he’s concerned, as long as Israel doesn’t directly jeopardize Assad’s survival, it can continue operating above Syria.
Russia’s alliance on the ground with Iran is one of convenience, and Putin is happy to keep Jerusalem and Tehran in balance. The only question is how long he can keep juggling all these balls.
The Israel Defense Forces’ official statements after the strike stressed that, as far as Israel is concerned, “the matter is closed,” and that as long as Israel’s freedom to operate is not “thwarted,” it has “no interest in destabilizing the region.”
But the impunity with which Israeli warplanes have operated over Lebanon and Syria for many years now is not the only thing that’s at stake.
Iran has steadfastly supported and aided Assad’s mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians since 2011, investing billions of dollars and the lives of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Shi’ite fighters. Now it wants to reap the benefits.
Israel is relying on the Kremlin to block Iran’s plans to establish its own air base on Syrian soil and to build a naval dock on the Mediterranean. So far, Russia has yet to state a clear position or give any clear commitments. On the ground, Iranian generals are still scouting for locations and building work has yet to begin. Is the Kremlin holding them up? According to reports from Moscow, the Russian government has refused to share its own naval facility in Syria, Tartus, with Iran.
The SA-5 was originally supplied to Syria by the Soviet Union, to help it counter Israeli air operations. In subsequent decades, the relationship has been transformed. Israel and Russia have become wary counterparts, if not allies.
Defense Minister Shoygu will receive a full briefing on Monday evening when he arrives to meet Lieberman at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. But the main issues on the agenda will be Russia’s long-term plans for the region.