Analysis: Netanyahu can't stop Putin, but he can coordinate with the Russians in Syria

The prime minister's upcoming visit to Moscow will seek to prevent accidental military friction with Russian forces in Syria.

Netanyahu and Putin (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Putin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is no need to exaggerate the threat posed to Israel by the Russian deployment of troops in Syria, nor must we overstate the importance of the upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When it comes to dealing with Putin, even a prime minister that “gets everything he wants” understands he must know his limitations. Netanyahu is not traveling to Moscow to stop the deployment of Russian forces in Syria – he is going in order to coordinate.
Russia is preparing the infrastructure for an airbase in Syria at which 1,000 Russian military personnel will be deployed along with MiG- 29 fighter jets and SA-22 air defense batteries. A Russian marine force, outfitted with T-90 tanks, will also be deployed in order to defend the base – not to take part in the civil war.
The army of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been operating SA-22 batteries for a number of years. It is an advanced, autonomous anti-aircraft system for short and medium-range threats that, up until a few years ago, was considered a serious challenge for the Israel Air Force.
However, according to foreign reports, the system has not prevented Israel from carrying out air raids in Syria every few months.
The difference this time is that the system will be operated by Russian soldiers and therefore demands cooperation, not just with Israel, but with all of the forces in the anti-ISIS coalition operating in Syrian airspace. This entails getting an understanding of the rules of engagement of the Russian batteries and how they will identify the plane on their radar screen and prevent accidents.
The same goes for the fighter jets. The Syrian Air Force has been operating MiG-29 jets for more than two decades.
Israel knows this aircraft well, and has trained against it, but must establish rules in order to prevent unwanted encounters between Russian and Israeli pilots. In the War of Attrition, Israeli pilots fought against Russian pilots. The battle ended 5-0 in Israel’s favor, but neither side wants to repeat it.
It is important for Israel that Russia avoid deploying anti-aircraft systems in the area that are liable to disturb the IAF’s freedom of flight, such as the S-400 or the S-300.
Nor does Israel want to see Russia deploy advanced jets with stealth capabilities in Syria.
As for the fear that advanced weapons systems could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, Netanyahu has already spoken to Putin about this in the past, but it did not stop him from selling such systems to Syria, with the clear knowledge that some of them were intended for Hezbollah.
Russia is a for-profit country.
It does not pretend to have a moral policy and it has no intention of taking into consideration a foreign interest which does not serve it. Moscow’s support for Assad could actually serve Israel’s interests – it could potentially bring stability, which is currently the best scenario for Israel.
Assad, bloodied and weak, will continue to control Damascus and the seaports, ISIS will remain in the East and Hezbollah will continue to be tied up in Syria.
The writer is the military commentator for Channel 10.