How could Russia-Israel controversy over Ukraine affect Israel’s operations in Syria?

With new tensions between Israel and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, Israel might not enjoy as much freedom to operate against Syria. Here are the different scenarios.

An IAF fighter jet is seen taking off amid the Vered Hagalil drill in Israel's North. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
An IAF fighter jet is seen taking off amid the Vered Hagalil drill in Israel's North.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Israel and Russia have had an amicable understanding regarding Syria since Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015. Under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that relationship was important and was managed in a complex and cautious way.

That does not mean Netanyahu’s management of the Russia issue always worked; there was criticism by Moscow of Israeli actions in Syria, but the relations continued nonetheless.

Now, with new tensions between Israel and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, and inflammatory comments from Russia’s foreign minister, there are questions about whether there will be consequences for their wider relationship.

The current Israeli government has attempted to continue the modus vivendi in Syria. This means Russia backs the Syrian regime while Israel operates against Iranian entrenchment. Airstrikes targeting that entrenchment have gone on for years.

However, previous reports in The Jerusalem Post have indicated that losing the security measures in place with the Russians in Syria would be a strategic problem for the IAF as Jerusalem continues to maintain a diplomatic balance over the war in Ukraine.

What this means for the so-called “war between wars” campaign is that Israel might suddenly find some issues more complex. But what does this mean in practice? Here are several scenarios:

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at the cabinet meeting, May 1, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at the cabinet meeting, May 1, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The first scenario is that everything remains the same. Russia and Israel see Syria as one file, and they can work on that. And while they may not share the same view of the Ukraine conflict, they may also have some shared interests elsewhere.

Russia wants good relations with Israel, and it may want to say one thing and do another. Moscow doesn’t usually like to throw away relations it has worked on for years. It also faces hurdles in Ukraine and doesn’t want tensions over Syria. This means it may be motivated to not change its position on Syria.

Another scenario is that Russia changes its views about Iran’s role in Syria. There is a sense that Tehran and Moscow do not see Syria in the same way. Iran wants a weak Syrian regime so that it can flood Syria with weapons, drugs and militias. Russia wants a stronger Syrian regime that is stable.

While they both want the US to leave Syria, Russia wants to manage that issue because it wants to slowly and incrementally increase the Assad regime’s power. Iran wants to backfill every power vacuum with its own militias and eat away at Syria. Iran wins when Syria is weaker; Russia wins when Syria is stronger.

Moscow could shift its view a bit and encourage the Islamic Republic to have more freedom of action in parts of Syria. That might allow the Iranians to move more missiles there, increasing the Imam Ali military base, which Iran appears to have not used much over the past year. It also might help protect Iran’s movement of its air defense, such as the 3rd Khordad system, to the T-4 air base or even giving Iran a blank check to operate closer to the Khmeimim air base in the north, where Russia has forces.

Another scenario is that Russia could aid Syrian air defense. It supposedly provided Syria with S-300s after an incident in which Syria shot down a Russian aircraft. Syria downed that aircraft near Latakia in 2018 by firing wildly at Israeli warplanes. The Kremlin could give Damascus more intelligence or more information and assistance with things like radar.

Moscow might be giving the Syrian regime more help to intercept Israeli missiles, Forbes reported last year. Russia began joint patrols with Syria near the Golan Heights, reports said in January. Moscow could begin to increase all these activities, making Jerusalem’s actions and operations more complex.

Russia could also increase intelligence leaks and sharing. An angry Moscow had exposed operational details of Israeli airstrikes, Ynet reported in November 2019. These included claims Israel had flown over Jordan. Moscow could try to embarrass Israel more regarding operations in Syria, and it could increase its rhetoric condemning the Jewish state at the UN and other forums.

Russia could also go further and begin selling arms to Iran or selling more to the Syrian regime. Lastly, Moscow could even begin to aid the Syrian regime in confronting Israeli airstrikes.

These are the main scenarios that could take place if Russia begins to feel it should let tensions over Ukraine affect relations with Israel. Moscow senses that this Israeli government is closer to the West and the Biden administration. But it also keenly understands that things could change in Jerusalem, and a new government might come to power.

Russia might exercise restraint regarding tensions over Israel and wait to use them, playing the “tensions card” later this summer, or it might wait and see if there are new Israeli elections and then do something to try to get what it wants from Jerusalem.