What’s behind Russia’s criticism of Israeli airstrikes in Syria

The statements by Russia have gained widespread attention, more than in previous Russian statements about Israeli strikes in Syria.

Alleged IDF bombing of targets in Syria (photo credit: ARAB SOCIAL MEDIA)
Alleged IDF bombing of targets in Syria
(photo credit: ARAB SOCIAL MEDIA)
Russia said over the weekend that Israeli airstrikes on Damascus “put a civilian aircraft in serious danger and forced it to divert to Russia’s Khmeimim airbase.” The statements by Russia have gained widespread attention, more than in previous Russian statements about Israeli strikes in Syria.
It appears to be a message from Moscow – but what is the message and what is its context?
Russia’s embassy in Israel tweeted about the recent incident and linked to an RT article on it. It says that Israel put a civilian aircraft in “serious danger.”
The Russian military and defense ministry are behind the initial assessment but its foreign ministry has put out the tweet. It says an Airbus A320 from Tehran had to make an emergency landing following “an Israeli missile attack.” More serious Russia has leaked to its media that Israel sought to “shield” its strikes using the civilian airliner. Russia seems to claim this is “commonplace.”
It could be that Russia is trying to draw parallels with Iran shooting down a Ukrainian civilian airline on January 8 following Iran’s ballistic missile strikes on US forces in Iraq. Russian media used the term “crossfire,” which was also used to excuse Iran’s shooting down of the Ukrainian plane. Russia seems to claim the plane trying to land in Damascus might have been caught in “crossfire.” Iranian media has picked up the story as well.
Russia’s claims made it to BBC, where an article asserted that Israel “nearly hit” the airline. There’s no evidence of this, outside the assertions.
The Cham Wings airline has not complained of  being nearly hit and it’s not clear why it flew north to Latakia rather than land at another airport. Igor Konashenkov of the Russian defense ministry has said that Israel is “using the presence of civilian airlines as a shield against Syrian anti-aircraft fire.” He said it made a “mockery of the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians.”
These are tough and almost unprecedented criticism directed at Israel by Moscow. It comes as Moscow has tensions with Turkey over fighting in Idlib and after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow in late January and Russia pardoned Naama Issachar, an American-Israeli held there.
Russia has upped its rhetoric about Israeli strikes in Syria in recent years. This comes after Israel has been increasingly public about its strikes on Iranian sites in Syria. For instance, the former IDF chief of staff said in January 2019 that Israel had his a thousand Iranian targets in Syria. Israel’s defense minister has said Israel will make Syria into a “Vietnam” for Iran.
Russia and Israel have been in close and increasing contact since Russia intervened in support of the Syrian regime in 2015 and sent its air force to Syria. In general, Russian operations have been in the north of the country, not where Israel has carried out airstrikes. But controversies have increased.
In September 2018, a Syrian S-200 shot down a Russian military plane during an Israeli airstrike, leading to a crisis. Russia sent S-300s to Syria in response and held talks with Israel. In December 2018, Russia called Israeli strikes on Syria “provocative.” Russia said at the time that a strike had “endangered two civilian flights.” In July and November 2019, Moscow also critiqued Israeli strikes, saying that Israel “grossly violated Syrian sovereignty.” In the June criticism Russia’s national security adviser said the strikes were undesirable.
In November 2019, Russia went further and its foreign ministry released information about “four alleged IDF attacks in the past ten days.” The release was seen as an attempt to embarrass Israel. The ministry reported that Israel struck near Albukamal in Syria and that “fighter jets reportedly crossed Iraqi and Jordanian airspace.”
Is Russia’s latest claim about the civilian airliner another message to Israel regarding Syria or is it a way to show Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime or a way to get Israel to slightly modify its strategy? There is lack of clarity about Russia’s end goal.
Russia likes to show that it can reveal more details about Israel’s actions and that through this it could either influence Israeli policy or at least make Israel’s decisions more transparent. That could feed Israel-Iran tensions. But overall Russia has not sought to prevent Israel’s actions or supply Damascus with the air defenses that might deter.
Some have argued over the years that this is because Russia and Iran do not see eye-to-eye on Syria and that Russia doesn’t mind if Iran gets a black eye in Syria. The theory would be that weakening Iran in Syria strengthens Russia because it means the Syrian regime is totally dependent on Moscow. Also, Russia may view Iran as destabilizing Syria because Iran keeps its forces in Syria and threatens Israel, thus undermining Damascus.
Iran has sought to move air defense to the T-4 base in Syria and moved prevision guided missile technology through Syria to aid Hezbollah. This is a major threat. Russia’s strategy in Syria is to preserve the regime and focus on balancing relations with Turkey.
Iran can spoil this through its actions. Moscow’s comments show it pays close attention to what happens between Israel and Iran. Allegations regarding civilian planes seem to be a kind of warning. Taken in contact with increasing criticism, it may represent Moscow’s attempt to begin to dictate the next phase of the Syrian conflict and reduce the time when Syria’s airspace was a free-for-all for Turkey, the US and others.