Don't be fooled, Moscow and Jerusalem still need each other in Syria

Netanyahu will need all the good will he built up over the past nine years with the Russian president to ensure that the current crisis does not seriously harm Israel's ties with Moscow.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian Preisdent Vladimir Putin  (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian Preisdent Vladimir Putin
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
In an interview just two months ago following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, US President Donald Trump said Putin has a soft spot in his heart for Israel.
Putin, Trump said, is “a believer in Israel; he is a fan of Bibi and really helping him a lot – and will help a lot, which is good for all of us.”
That was just two months ago.
Following the Russian Defense Ministry's announcement Sunday angrily pinning the blame on Israel for Syria's downing last week of a Russian spy plane, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now has to be hoping that Trump was accurate in his read of the Russian president.
Netanyahu, and Israel, will need all the good will he has built up over the past nine years with the Russian president to ensure that the current crisis does not seriously harm Israel's ties with Moscow, something that would impair Israel's ability to deal with what it views as an enormous strategic threat: an entrenched Iranian military presence in Syria, and the unhindered transfer of precision-guided missiles from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In a turn of events that could only happen in the Middle East, the Syrian army shoots down a Russian spy plane following an Israeli attack on an Iranian facility meant to manufacture precision arms for Hezbollah in Lebanon – and Israel gets blamed.
That chain of events brings to mind Menachem Begin's famous line after the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982: “Non-jews kill non-Jews, and they immediately come to hang the Jews.”
In this case, however, it is hard to imagine Russia coming to “hang” Israel. Make it sweat? Yes. Use the incident as leverage to get Israel -- at least in the short-term -- to curb its actions in Syria? Yes. But Moscow is unlikely now to go all out to harm Israel's interest, as the Soviet Union was wont to do in the bad old days. Not because Putin is, as Trump said, “a believer in Israel” or a “fan of Bibi,” but rather because Russia has considerable interests in Syria that will not be helped by burning bridges with Jerusalem.
The close ties that have developed between Israel and Russia are definitely good for Israel, but they are very beneficial for Russia as well.
The understandings that Jerusalem and Moscow agreed upon following Russia's military involvement in Syria three years ago were based on a simple idea: Both countries have their own interests in Syria, and they will promote those interests while doing their utmost not to harm the key interests of the other.
In other words, Israel's interests were to prevent arms from going to Hezbollah and to prevent Iran from turning Syria into a forward base against it, and Russia's interests were for Syria to remain a unified country under President Bashar Assad's control.
Israel could pursue its aims without damaging Russia's interests, and Russia could pursue its aims without harming Israel’s. This meant that Israel would hit Syrian and Iranian targets, but stay clear of doing anything to bring down Assad or hit Russian personnel and military, and Russia could boost Assad and help him defeat the rebels without interdicting Israeli planes on missions in the country.
Even after the tragic and unfortunate downing of the Russian spy plane, those same interests still exist. Israel still wants to keep the Iranians from moving in next door or Hezbollah from being strengthened, and Russia still wants to protect Assad and its assets in Syria.
Russia, if it so chooses, could make things much more difficult for Israel in Syria, but – likewise – Israel also has the ability to significantly weaken Assad, something that is counter to Russia's interests.
Which is why, after the dust settles, the two counties are likely to again find a way for both to pursue their own interests in Syria. Which does not mean that there will not be mishaps and crisis and statements of anger. But don't confuse an angry statement from the Russian Defense Ministry for a breakdown of ties between the two countries. The morning after the downing of the plane, the Syrian Defense Ministry threatened some sort of retaliation against Israel. A few hours later Putin spoke, and took a much more measured approach. The same may happen now as well.
It was unrealistic to think that Israel would dispatch Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin to Moscow, he would hold a few meetings with his Russian colleagues, present them with Israel’s findings, and the Russian military establishment would blame themselves or their ally Syria – for whom they are fighting, dying and expending tens of billions of rubles – for the mishap. It was obvious from the get-go that wouldn't be the outcome.
The Russian military had to blame somebody for an incident that puts their capabilities, and the capabilities of their Syrian ally, in a bad light, so they pinned the blame on Israel. At least publicly.
But privately Putin is surely looking at the larger picture, and in the larger picture, neither Moscow nor Jerusalem benefits form a breakdown of ties. He realizes that, and eventually that message will be made clear to the Russian Defense Ministry as well. It just might take a little time.