(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel Wednesday night at 11:00 p.m. after a day in Moscow and meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Four hours earlier, in a conference call with Israeli reporters, he said there was “no basis to think” that the Russians would curb Israel’s maneuverability in Syria. He obviously knew of what he spoke.
Because 75 minutes after his return to Israel, the Iranians launched 20 missiles toward IDF positions on the Golan Heights. Israel had anticipated the attack, an Iranian effort to avenge earlier Israeli attacks on their positions in Syria. It was met with a pulverizing response by the IAF, destroying much of the Iranian military infrastructure in Syria, according to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
Tellingly, the Russians did nothing on the ground; their Mideast envoy, Mikhail Bogdanov, issued a neutral statement saying that the developments were “alarming,” that there was a need to de-escalate tensions, and that the situation distracts from the fight inside Syria against Islamic State.
The working assumption in Jerusalem for weeks, since Iranian fighters were killed in two recent attacks in Syria attributed to Israel, was that Tehran would respond. The clear message coming from Jerusalem was that Israel would not let such a response go unanswered, and it would deliver a pulverizing counterpunch.
It is highly likely that the nature of that counterpunch – perhaps not the exact targets to be attacked, but the breadth and magnitude of the operation – was discussed with the Russians to avoid, as Israel is meticulously trying to do, accidentally engaging the Russians and surprising Moscow.
Nobody wants Israel to surprise them: not US President Donald Trump, and not Putin – and it is very much in Israel’s interests to have a good, open channel of communications with both men.
Netanyahu speaks often about the close coordination that exists between the Israeli and Russian militaries and the good relationship he has developed with Putin – a relationship very much on display when the Russian president invited him to Moscow on Wednesday to watch the military parade marking the victory over Germany 73 years ago.
And one of the reasons that relationship remains as good as it has is because there are few surprises. The Russians by now know very well what will trigger an Israeli response and what form that response is likely to take.
So far the Russians have stayed out of the way and enabled Israel to act as it sees fit – and that is neither a given or something to be taken lightly.
Netanyahu’s critics say if the premier’s relationship is so good with the Russian leader, and if the coordination is so close, then why doesn’t Putin put an end to Iran’s attempts to entrench itself in Syria?
Russian diplomats, when asked this question, say Iran is a sovereign state over which Russia does not have control. Just as Moscow cannot tell Israel not to operate in Syria, they say, it cannot tell Iran not to operate there either.
But what Moscow does obviously tell both sides is not to harm Russian interests or assets. The primary Russian asset in Syria is President Bashar Assad, in whose regime Moscow has invested millions of rubles and for whom Russian soldiers have been killed.
Other assets include the Russian naval base at Tartus and the air base at Latakia.
Russia enjoys good relations with Iran, just as it enjoys good relations with Israel. Putin meets periodically with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, just as he meets with Netanyahu, though perhaps not as much. But they do meet, and they do talk. For instance, the two men last met in April and before that last November.
One can assume that just as Netanyahu from time to time entreats Putin to curb Iranian actions in Syria, Rouhani appeals to Putin to stop Israeli actions there also. Putin listens to both and does nothing against either side: He doesn’t curb Israel, and he doesn’t restrict Iran.
As long as Russia’s interests are not harmed, from Putin’s point of view, this particular fight is not Russia’s.