Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Russia for yet another meeting with president Vladimir Putin—his third such trip (and fourth meeting) since Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria last September. While Israel is clearly concerned about the possibility of entertaining Iranian proxies, advisers, and weapons in the Golan Heights, in addition to the existing concentrations of Hezbollah troops and rockets in Southern Lebanon, Russia’s leanings are presented as something of a mystery. Is Russia using Syria as a forward base to fight Chechen jihadists? Are there important gaps between the Russian and Iranian positions? Have Israel and Russia reached important operational understandings that define who can act where inside Syria?
The lavish speculation on these and other such points is compounded by the demands of information warfare campaigns being run by all sides, which often seek to convince particular audiences of things that are wildly untrue. This form of gamesmanship reached a fevered pitch following the mysterious killing in Damascus of Hezbollah’s top military commander, Mustafa Badreddine, in May. At the farthest end of the spectrum is the rather elaborate suggestion that it was the Russians who may have dispatched Badreddine—a move that should supposedly be read against the backdrop of Russia’s competition with Iran for primacy in Syria. If this sounds far-fetched, then another reading, only one step removed from the suggestion of direct Russian involvement, has found some mainstream appeal. Briefly put, this reading maintains that since Russia dominates Syrian airspace and has stationed the anti-access/area denial S-400 missile system in Latakia, then any Israeli operation in Syria must have had at least an implicit Russian green light. Some will go even further and contend that such strikes are indeed coordinated with Russia as part of an alleged “coordination mechanism” that the Israeli government has been busy negotiating with the Kremlin.
In truth, while there’s much talk about the Israeli-Russian “coordination” mechanism, there’s no real information about the details of any such arrangement, which appears to live in a conceptual realm that is at least somewhat removed from physical reality. How Russia views this quasi-theoretical “coordination” that has been defined largely by public statements from Israeli officials is completely unknown.
What is clear is that the Russian intervention has only added to the new opportunities and new threats arising from Syria’s implosion. The strategic benefits of the conflict for Israel are quite real: Hezbollah is embroiled in a costly and consuming war of attrition with the Sunni rebels, who have killed well over 1,000 of its fighters, including many veteran field commanders. The war in Syria has also undercut the group’s strategic depth. Prior to 2011, Israel had mostly avoided striking arms convoys to Hezbollah on the Syrian side of the border, resorting instead to sabotage operations in Lebanon. Since the outbreak of the war, the IAF has been targeting Hezbollah assets and commanders in Syria at will.
On the other hand, despite Israeli efforts, Hezbollah had managed to increase its arsenal and had acquired some advanced weapons systems. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly last October, Netanyahu specified that Hezbollah had smuggled a Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile system (in early 2014, it was said that Hezbollah had acquired components of it), and SA-22 anti-air missiles into Lebanon. It’s not known for sure if it has also managed to smuggle the SA-17 system, which it had tried to in the past and failed, thanks to IAF strikes. Iran has also upgraded the group’s Fateh 110 missiles, which are capable of hitting deep in Israel with added precision. As a result, IDF officers now regularly acknowledge that a future conflict will see hundreds of missiles raining down on Israeli cities every day. Still, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon recently downplayed these threats: “If there is something that I lose sleep at night about, it’s not the truckloads of weapons in Syria and Lebanon or Iran’s attempts to wage terror—Israel has the capabilities to deal with these forcefully and with sophistication.”
Left out of Ya’alon’s assessment of the dangers posed by various new weapons systems, however, is the fact that Washington has been lending cover to Iran’s ambition to make its presence in Syria a permanent one. As Ya’alon said in a different context, “Iran determines the future of Syria, and if it leads to perpetuation, Iranian hegemony in Syria will be huge a challenge for Israel.” The Syrian crisis has crystallized the fact that Israel and the United States are on opposing sides when it comes to the Iranian role in the region, including directly on Israel’s borders. President Barack Obama has recognized Syria and Lebanon as Iranian zones of influence and Tehran as a legitimate “stakeholder” in Syria.
The strategic significance for Israel of Iran’s new status as an American-backed regional power isn’t hard to fathom. It’s also why Netanyahu began traveling to Moscow. Since Russia was partnered in Syria with Iran and Hezbollah and the other Shiite militias operating under the command of the IRGC, there was no telling how the Russians would behave and what restrictions would be imposed on Israel’s freedom to operate in Syria.
When Netanyahu paid his first call on Putin in Moscow, he publicly laid out Israel’s position and red lines. “Iran and Syria have been arming … Hezbollah with advanced weapons, which are aimed at us,” Netanyahu said. He added, “Iran, as the benefactor of the Syrian army, is trying to build a second terror front against us from the Golan. Our policy is to thwart the flow of these weapons and to prevent the establishment of a new terror front and attacks against us from the Golan.” The mechanism that was discussed with the Russians, Netanyahu disclosed, was simply “to prevent misunderstandings between IDF forces and Russian forces.”
Israel quickly made good on its word and struck again inside Syria in October. Reported strikes continued apace throughout November as well. It was important for Israel to establish its determination to continue operations and not allow the perception that Russia’s entry had afforded Hezbollah and Iran a protective umbrella—which is how initially Hezbollah propaganda portrayed the new reality following the Russian intervention. Israeli official statements about finding Russian “understanding” for Israel’s position or comments playing up the “coordination mechanism” were intended to put a damper on such propaganda. Continued Israel operations gave such Israeli public statements credibility, even as the Russians remained silent.
The Russian intervention did introduce some important restrictions on Israeli activity. For instance, whereas Israel struck a shipment of Yakhont missiles in the port of Latakia in 2013, all reported Israeli strikes since September 2015 have been south of the city of Homs, near Lebanon’s eastern border, and in and around Damascus. Unlike in 2013, Latakia now houses Russia’s military base and its formidable S-400 anti-air missile system. So, as things stand, there is an effective delineation of territory where Israel still executes missions against Iranian weapons shipments and Hezbollah and Assad regime targets. This area covers the length of Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. The adjacent areas on the Syrian side, south of Homs and in the Qalamoun region, as well as on the road to Damascus, now mostly under Hezbollah control, house weapons storage depots for the group, as does the Damascus Airport. The Golan area, which Israel regards as a red line, is part of this area of continued Israeli operations.
Israeli operations went beyond intercepting weapons shipment to assassinations of Hezbollah cadres. In December 2015, Israel reportedly took out Samir Kuntar, the Lebanese Druze terrorist, in a strike in a Damascus neighborhood. Kuntar was said to have been working on behalf of Hezbollah with the Druze of southern Syria, recruiting them for Hezbollah’s Syrian franchise. Golan Druze were used to plant IED’s for Hezbollah, as well as for other missions. Iran’s drive to establish an operational infrastructure on the Golan is repeatedly cited by Netanyahu as a red line. A few weeks before the Kuntar assassination, Netanyahu went so far as to acknowledge Israeli action to prevent it: “We are working against the opening of an additional terror front that Iran is trying to open on the Golan, and in order to mitigate the transfer of deadly weapons from Syria to Lebanon. This is something which we will continue to do.”
Interestingly, the pro-Hezbollah TV station al-Mayadeen claimed at the time that the Kuntar strike was actually executed from within Israeli air space. It is possible that the Badreddine strike followed the same modus operandi. Indeed, one Arabic language report, quoting Syrian military sources, claimed that Badreddine was killed with a precision-guided SPICE glide bomb and that the method was identical to the Kuntar operation. If true, this adds another Israeli adjustment to the Russian presence in Syria. Hardly implying the kind of deep understanding and coordination between Moscow and Jerusalem, it rather suggests that Israel has proceeded with caution, if also with resolve, firing from outside Russian-protected Syrian airspace. It’s not likely that Russia would target Israeli jets flying inside Israel’s own airspace, or even over the Mediterranean.
There is a wider context for Israel’s prudence—beyond the presence of the S-400—which suggests that it hasn’t been all smooth sailing with the Russians in Syria, despite all the talk of “coordination” and top-level visits to Moscow. In a January meeting with members of Congress, Jordan’s King Abdullah supposedly revealed how testy things had been with the Russians in southern Syria. In a leaked account of the meeting, Abdullah reportedly disclosed that at one point, Russian jets in southern Syria were met with Jordanian and Israeli F-16s. “The Russians were shocked and understood they cannot mess with us,” Abdullah allegedly said.
Abdullah’s comments came during an Iranian-led Hezbollah and regime offensive in the Deraa province in southern Syria, under Russian air cover. Abdullah was particularly alarmed and reportedly felt betrayed by Putin, with whom he thought he had an understanding that Russia wouldn’t operate near the Jordanian border. Just as the Israelis had sought to keep the Iranians away from the Golan, the Jordanians, too, had pushed out the IRGC and Hezbollah from near their border. The prospect of the Iranians and their Shiite militias returning under Russian cover, to say nothing of a potential massive flow of refugees, was alarming for Amman and also for Jerusalem. It made sense for both Israel and Jordan to draw a firm line.
This was not a singular incident. Last April, ahead of Netanyahu’s second trip to Russia, Israeli media reported that one or more Russian jets were scrambled to meet an Israeli squadron flying along the Syrian coast. The already scant details of the incident varied from one outlet to the next, which makes drawing conclusions difficult. If the Israeli jets were near the Syrian coast (and not, as one outlet reported, operating near the northern border), was this a Russian delineation of territory for Israeli operations? Or did it carry no such significance at all?
Although nothing serious resulted from the encounter, it nevertheless served as another reminder of the rudimentary and vague nature of the “understanding” between Israel and Russia, several months into the Russian intervention. Indeed, Netanyahu admitted that his second trip to Russia aimed to achieve more clarity between the two sides. “I set the goal of the meeting as strengthening coordination between Russia and Israel to prevent mishaps,” Netanyahu said. “I think we clarified some matters, and that is very important.” Israel, in other words, was still feeling its way around, while trying to avoid a serious incident.
Operational issues aside, Israel had to contend with the broader matter of Syria itself. What’s more, it had to do so on its own, as its traditional American ally was seemingly more concerned with protecting the Syrian “equities” of Israel’s foremost enemy, Iran. As Russia and the United States were discussing Syria’s fate, Israel was left out by the United States, which did not consider Israel to also be a “stakeholder” in Syria, a country with which it shares a border and has fought two large-scale wars. Therefore, Netanyahu used his second trip to Russia to raise the issue of permanent Israeli sovereignty over the Golan—a conversation that the Israeli prime minister continued with Putin during his June trip. “The countries that surround (Israel), especially Syria, some of them have fallen apart and need a new arrangement,” Netanyahu said. “I spoke about this at length with President Putin, and the important thing is that what will take their place … won’t threaten (Israel).”
That Netanyahu was now forced to petition Russia about the Golan highlighted that the United States under Obama was gone. America’s absence means that Israel must now find an accommodation with Russia to ensure its interests.
The dilemma, however, is that the Russian enterprise in Syria is a partnership with Iran; its success is also Iran’s success. While Russia has firepower, and a seat at the Security Council, the Iranians own the ground in Syria. It is their forces and their IRGC-run Shiite militias that hold regime territory, and fight to expand it. Without these fighters, Assad, who has a massive manpower problem, would not be able to survive. And without those forces on the ground, there would be no one to guard the areas around Russia’s bases, or to take advantage of Russia’s air and artillery assaults, which is why Hezbollah and Iranian officers have worked together with Russian officers in recent months planning operations.
There is no other possible partner for Russia in Syria besides Iran. And for all the talk about the divergence between Iranian and Russian objectives, the fact is that they agree on a fundamental point: the survival of the Assad regime. That’s the pivot around which both their strategies revolve. Put differently, the Russian endgame is geared to ensure the victory of the Assad regime. In turn, that victory ensures the preservation of Iran’s position and strategic objectives in Syria. And that spells long-term trouble for Israel.
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Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.