Avoiding an Israeli-Russian conflict in Syria, after US withdrawal

Israel and Syria have been enemies since Israel was established, in 1948.

By
January 10, 2019 21:51
3 minute read.
A U.S. Soldier surveils the area during a combined joint patrol in Manbij, Syria, November 1, 2018.

A U.S. Soldier surveils the area during a combined joint patrol in Manbij, Syria, November 1, 2018. Picture taken on November 1, 2018.. (photo credit: COURTESY ZOE GARBARINO/U.S. ARMY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

 
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The United States is about to take its forces out of Syria in the near future. This development might increase the probability of a clash between Israel and Russia in Syria, which might escalate into a dangerous crisis. Israel, the United States and Russia could work together to prevent that, by taking care of the main problem in Syria: limiting as much as possible the Iranian deployment there.

There are about 2,000 US troops who are deployed in Syria, a relatively small number, particularly in a country that spreads more than 71,500 sq. mi. Nevertheless, for Israel even this quite tiny American presence helps, mostly in the effort of containing the Iranian military deployment in Syria.

In Syria, the United States confronts ISIS not Russia and its Syrian ally, Bashar Assad. The United States also seeks to reduce the Iranian influence in the Middle East, including in Syria. Israel asked the Trump administration to stop its retreat from Syria or at least to slow it down, not because of Russia, but due to the Iranian military deployment in Syria.

Israel and Syria have been enemies since Israel was established, in 1948. The two states had a series of wars; the last one was in 1982. Furthermore, in their main front, the Golan Heights, there has been quiet since 1974, until 2011, when the Syrian civil war erupted. Since then, there was a friction between Israel and Syria, mostly because Israel had launched hundreds of air sorties inside Syria that destroyed weapons like surface to surface, on their way from Iran to Hezbollah, its protégé in Lebanon.

During one of those strikes, on September 18, the Syrian air defense, probably by mistake, shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane, killing 14 Russian crew members who were on board. Russia blamed Israel for that incident and sent the S-300, an advanced antiaircraft system, to reinforce the air defense in Syria.

RUSSIA HAS reasons why not to let the Syrians to run the S-300 completely by themselves. It is a gamble because if the S-300 fails, it could impact Russia’s prestige and arms sales around the world. Such humiliation could push Russia to be more aggressive.
By 2018, 63,012 Russian troops have fought in Syria,which shows how deeply Russia has been involved in that country. Still, Israel’s leaders declared that Israel will continue to do what is needed to secure their state. Russia and Israel have developed a coordination mechanism, aiming at allowing Israel to bomb inside Syria. It has been quite effective, yet in recent months, Russia had made it more difficult for Israel in this matter.


Russia has in Syria not only the S-300, but even a more sophisticated antiaircraft battery, the S-400. If those batteries open fire on Israeli aircraft, the latter might return a favor. The last time such a confrontation happened was during the attrition war in Egypt in 1969-1970.
A clash between Israel and Russia might have more severe outcome than the one that occurred between Turkey and Russia after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft in late November 2015.

Israel has powerful US weapons, including the F-35 stealth fighter. Yet Israel requires not only American military assistance, but a diplomatic one as well, particularly if there is a serious friction between Israel and Russia.

It is essential to get rid of the Iranian presence in Syria, before the latter turns into a strong Iranian base, as part of Iran’s regional ambitions, aimed against both Israel and the United States. This is the source of the problem. As long as Iran exploits Syria for that purpose, Israel will bomb inside Syria, which can force the Russians to act against Israel.

Israel and the United States are not pleased with the Russian grip on Syria, but this challenge can wait. The more burning issue is how to deal with the Iranians in Syria. Here Russia might actually help. Russia needed Iran as long as the war went on in Syria, which seems now close to its end. In this new circumstance, Iran and Russia compete with each other for which one will be the dominant foreign power in Syria. Therefore, Israel and the United States can collaborate with Russia, officially or not, in kicking Iranian forces out of Syria. It will be a way to both contain Iran and avoid a clash between Israel and Russia.

The writer is a Ph.D. and analyst of Israel’s national security; and is the author of Israel’s Military Doctrine (Rowman & Littlefield: Lexington Books, 2018).

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