The reaction of the Russian Defense Ministry to the alleged Israeli attack on Damascus on Wednesday was troubling in its harshness - but it didn’t stray from the stern tone the ministry has adopted since the downing of Russian spy plane over Latakia in September. Ministry spokesperson Major-General Igor Konashenkov warned last month against a “provocation” that will be carried out by “hot-heads.” He didn’t mention Israel by name, though it was clear to whom his warning was addressed.
The more that Russia is entrenched in Syria, the more it feels bound by its role as patron and protector. This is doubly true after Donald Trump’s announcement last week of the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces, which effectively ceded hegemony over Syria to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moscow has no choice but to defend its lost honor whenever Israeli jets or missiles sow destruction in its protectorate and emerge unscathed. The humiliation is compounded by the fact that Russia’s much-ballyhooed retaliation for the downed plane, supplying Syria with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
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The ritual, which began before the downing of the plane but has turned more intense in its wake, is that the Russian defense establishment plays the bad cop, while Putin improvises: He can play good cop, silent cop or truly scary cop, depending on what’s needed. Putin doesn’t want a direct clash with Israel and may privately appreciate its help in degrading Iran’s presence in Syria. But there is a limit to his patience and tolerance, and after Trump’s officially handed over the keys, the bar is now set far lower.
A scenario in which Israel crosses the Kremlin and its red lines, because of mishap or smashing success, is more realistic today than ever. Tensions between the two countries will flare, warnings will turn to threats, and the danger of a direct clash will increase dramatically. The dynamics of such an escalation are well-known to Israeli historians and participants who are still alive, because this is exactly what happened half a century ago, in a different world but under disturbingly similar circumstances.
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On July 30, 1970 a task force of Israeli Mirage jet fighters shot down five Soviet MiG-21 jets, with Soviet pilots manning them, in an air battle over the Suez Canal. The incident was no coincidence but a planned ambush carried out by the Israel Air Force under the codename “Rimon 20.” Israel decided on the risky attack against a superpower in order to signal the Soviets that it would no longer refrain from attacking the Soviet-manned jets and anti-aircraft missile batteries that the Kremlin had dispatched to defend Egypt. Then too, Moscow found itself compelled to escalate, against its better judgment, after Israeli air attacks exposed the failure of the sophisticated anti-aircraft array that it had given Egypt. It increased its own military involvement in response to the damage to its prestige, as protector and as weapon-manufacturer.
The aerial knockout inflicted by Israel did not lead to further clashes, however, but it didn’t pave the way for the crushing blow that Israel had intended to inflict on the Egyptians either. The dogfight over Suez alarmed the Nixon administration, worried about getting dragged into a fight in the Near East while it was engaged in the disastrous war in the Far East. The administration pressured Israel to agree to a cease-fire, which was signed within a week. The clash was put off for three years, until October 6, 1973, during which Moscow improved and expanded both the Egyptian and Syrian air defense capabilities. The Yom Kippur War exacted a steep price: In three weeks of fighting, Israel lost 102 fighters, 51 on each front.
Those were the days of the Cold War, when the Middle East was one of several arenas in which the two superpowers clashed and competed. The administration in Washington could be distant and reserved toward Israel on any other matter, but its protection against direct threats by the Soviets was virtually guaranteed. It happened in 1967, when Washington made clear that if the Soviets carry out their threat to intervene in order to save the Syrian regime, the U.S. would declare war, and once again in the final days of the 1973, when similar circumstances brought the two countries to the brink of nuclear war.
The objectives and considerations of Putin in 2018 are not materially different than those of Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership in 1970. Following a hiatus of introspection that lasted close to two decades, starting with the collapse of communism and ending with Putin’s consolidation of power, Russia has once again adopted an imperialist strategy. It seeks to make the Middle East into a Russian sphere of influence. Control of the region is necessary, among other things, in order to serve as a forward post and as a counterbalance against U.S. forces in the Gulf and in Europe. All U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama, were forced to deal with containing Russia’s Middle East ambitions, each in his own way and own success, or failure. But no one doubted their commitment to fighting Russia off, until Trump became president.
Trump is still seen as a good friend of Israel, but the withdrawal from Syria has eroded the public’s confidence in the stability and reliability of his support. The exit from Syria has been interpreted as an expression of his isolationist tendencies and his wish to extract the U.S. from costly military interventions, as he promised during the campaign. During his Christmas visit to U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump presented his more transactional view of international affairs: Israel gets $4.5 billion a year, he said, as if that was the only nature and extent of support that Jerusalem could expect from its friends in Washington.
Questions of deterrence, projections of power, international leadership or the traditional Middle East view of hasty withdrawals as tantamount to cutting and running are either foreign to Trump or pale in significance in his eyes compared to fulfilling his “America First” ideology, which, it now turns out, could exact a steep price from Israel.
But it’s one thing to ascribe Trump’s withdrawal to his beliefs - self-centered and muddled as these may be - and quite another if his behavior, including the Syrian retreat, stems from a far more sinister place. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has yet to unveil a smoking gun pointing directly at Trump but what is already known is enough to raise suspicions that the president is beholden to the Kremlin in one way or another.
There’s no doubt that Russia devoted enormous resources and many millions of dollars to boost Trump’s candidacy and there’s no doubt than an inordinate number of his closest confidants met frequently with representatives of the Kremlin during the election campaign in order to advance the same goal. Even if Trump didn’t play an active role in a conspiracy to collude, he should certainly be aware just how much he owes the Russians.
Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said this week that the question of collusion is marginal anyway. The Russians examined the candidates and came to the conclusion that Trump best served their interests. After making the decision, they used disinformation and psychological warfare and deployed an army of cyber bots to distribute them far and wide. Given that only 70,000 votes in three states were needed to make Trump president, one can hardly discount the claim that were it not for Russia’s intervention, Clinton would now be sitting in the White House.
But whatever his true motivation, by any results-oriented yardstick Trump has proven to be a Russian dream come true, advancing the Kremlin’s interests as if he was a hired hand; He disdains allies, praises enemies, weakens NATO, bickers with China, revokes sanctions against Putin’s cronies and repeatedly hints that the West should come to terms with the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea - never mind the division and demoralization that he sows inside the U.S. Throwing away the keys to Syria is part of the same trend. Under such circumstances, can one rely on Trump to protect Israel if and when it will face a direct threat from Moscow? Iran, maybe. But Russia?
Under such dangerous circumstances, Trump could turn out to be not the friendliest American president in history, as Netanyahu portrays him, but the most dangerous. Even if one accepts the contention that it was Obama who opened the doors for Russia to enter the Middle East or that it was Obama who first abandoned Syria, the 44th president frequently confronted Putin’s ambitions and pushed back. The fear that Clinton would continue the same line and even toughen it is what convinced the Kremlin to support Trump in the first place.
The detachment of America from the Middle East is worrying enough for Israel in the arena of its fight against Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, which all enjoy Russia’s patronage to one degree or another. But it is a clear and present danger if Russia knows that Washington won’t resist any pressure or threat on Israel: The void creates a clash that’s just waiting to happen. The Israeli army is strong and resilient but still a midget compared to Russia’s million soldiers, 3500 jets, 15,000 tanks, 55 submarines and thousands of nuclear bombs. For Israel, a direct clash with Russia is the worst of its nightmares, the sum of its fears. This is true in normal times and doubly so when the U.S. president cannot be relied on even during Israel’s most dire need.
As conservative columnist Bret Stephens wrote in the New York Times this week about the impact of Trump’s Syria retreat: “During the eight years of the Obama presidency, I thought U.S. policy toward Israel couldn’t get worse. As with so much else, Donald Trump succeeds in making his predecessors look good.”
In political terms, a confrontation with Russia could serve Netanyahu’s election campaign. It would enhance his image as Mr. Security while distracting from his legal complications. But it is a gamble nonetheless: Another run-in with Moscow could undermine Netanyahu’s claim to have reached understandings with Putin. Worse, it could shine a nasty spotlight on his total and potentially fatal decision to invest Israel’s all in Trump.
Such a perception could boomerang against Netanyahu on April 9, though one should always consider the possibility that the Kremlin has already evaluated the various candidates and decided that Netanyahu would best serve its purposes and interests. In which case, any loss of public support for Netanyahu for mishandling Israel’s global relations would be more than offset by legions of Russian cyber bots, sent out to spread lies and animosity, as only they can.