Analysis

Israel Struggles to Draw New Red Lines in Russia’s Syria Playground

Putin will let Israel continue attacking Syria, but will not stop Assad's military from trying to shoot down its planes

Posters of Assad and Putin in Aleppo, Syria, January 18, 2018.
Hassan Ammar/AP

The first message Israeli officials put out in the early hours of Saturday morning's air battle over Syria was that the missiles fired at the Israeli fighter jets, causing one of its F-16I to crash, were “Syrian.” In other words, the missiles did not belong to, or were not operated by, the real military power in Syria, the Russian Federation. This is a bit disingenuous.

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Russian officers are embedded in Syrian air-defense units, they have been training together and resupplying the Syrians with missiles. The scale of the salvos fired by the Syrian units could not have been carried out without immediate Russian knowledge, if not direct involvement. The message is in fact a tacit admission that Israel has no choice but to accept, for now at least, the Kremlin’s hegemony across its northern border.

The remains of an F-16 Israeli warplane are seen in northern Israel, February 10, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

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Russian warplanes are currently pounding rebel enclaves in Idlib and Ghouta, indiscriminately killing dozens of civilians daily. Russia is standing on the sidelines, while Turkey, Iran and Israel are all fighting for their own foothold in Syria. It is safe to assume that Russia was aware of the Iranian drone taking off at 4 A.M. near Palmyra and flying toward Israel, as its officers are in the Palmyra air-control center. Moreover, Russia would have had real-time knowledge that the Syrians were responding with an unprecedented barrage of anti-aircraft missiles to Israel’s attack on the control site of the Iranian drone.

Russia has a hotline reserved for coordination from its base at Khmeimim on Syria’s Mediterranean coast to Israel Air Force’s headquarters. As the second wave of Israeli strikes on Saturday against Syrian and Iranian targets ended, it was likely that Russia was the one that passed on Israel’s message to the Syrians and Iranians, which said Israel does not wish to escalate matters any further.

President Vladimir Putin is the one running the show in Syria and he is the one establishing the ground rules. Israel can carry out attacks against Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets, but only as long as they don’t jeopardize the Bashar Assad regime, which Putin has been propping up since deploying Russian aircraft to Syria in September 2015.

Israeli solders taking positions on the border with Syria, February 10, 2018.
JALAA MAREY/AFP

For now, Russia is not allowing Iran to establish large bases in Syria or to come too close to the Golan border with Israel. But this does not mean that the Iranians are leaving Syria, either. Russia needs the Shi’ite militias drafted by Iran and made up of Afghan refugees as its boots on the ground, to back Assad’s army, and therefore the Iranians are allowed to operate their drones and make the occasional incursion into Israeli airspace. As long as the Iranian forces remain useful to Russia, it won’t heed Israeli demands to keep them out. Still, it will keep a close eye to make sure the Iranians don’t go too far.

The three sides are now licking their wounds. Iran has lost a drone-control facility. The Syrians lost three air-defense systems and Israel a fighter-jet - a blow to the national pride of a country that holds its air force as invincible. There is little any of the three parties could do at the moment to change the situation.

For now, Israel has no choice but to accept Moscow's rules. It will continue to demonstrate that it can fly over Syrian airspace and attack targets, but will nonetheless have to exercise much more caution. Russia, while it is not stopping the Israeli planes, despite its control over Syrian airspace, will not stop Assad’s military from trying to shoot them down either.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to draw red lines limiting the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, but he is not the one calling the shots. Putin is.