Russia Warned Israel Before Downing of Plane: Attacking Syrian Targets Harms Moscow’s Interests

According to the Russians, Israeli strikes weaken Assad and harm his attempts to end the Syrian conflict

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Kuzhugetovich Shoigu, May 2018.
Ariel Hermoni, MoD

Russia told senior Israeli security officials that attacking Syrian targets is inconsistent with its interests in the region even before the Russian plane was shot down in Syria last week, Haaretz has learned.

Officials in the Israeli security establishment said Russia recently conveyed a message to Israel that attacking Syrian targets is against Russia's goal to strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. According to the Russians, Israeli strikes weaken Assad and harm his attempts to end the fighting in the country.

Despite the Russian messages, Israel's policy in Syria has not changed. The assumption is that Russia will overlook attacks on Iranian targets aimed at stopping the Islamic Republic's presence in Syria and its weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

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Israel understood that the materials its delegation presented to Russia during the visit headed by air force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin were received with understanding by their Russian counterparts. Upon the delegation's return, a senior IDF official said that "it is clear to everyone who was a party to the talks that the responsible one for shooting down the Russian plane is Syria."

However, the findings of the Russian investigation, as presented Sunday by the Russian Defense Ministry, put this understanding into question. Although this was not the first time, Russia's decision to close Syria's airspace for the purpose of an exercise was perceived in Israel as a message from the Russians that the incident was still on the agenda.

The decision by Russia and Israel to reexamine the security coordination between the two countries is of great concern to Israel, mainly because of the changes that Syria will demand in order to carry out cooperation with Israel.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's conciliatory tone after the downing of the plane, the IDF understands that Putin may exploit the incident to impose various new rules in Syria and strengthen its control in the region, control that has been damaged by the civil war. Russia might make it more difficult for Israel to conduct additional attacks, which would force the IDF to examine additional ways to operate in the area.

Israel fears that even if Russia does not demand a complete halt to its attacks, it can influence IDF activity in other ways: It could demand greater warning time, decide to close the airspace or require more advanced air defense systems be put in place as a signal to Israel, among other options. If Israel were to deviate from the new restrictions, if such restrictions were to be placed, Russia would interpret this as a violation of its agreements with Israel.