Downing of Russian plane redefines Israel’s Syria dilemma

On September 17, Syrian air defenses accidentally shot down a Russian surveillance aircraft while retaliating against Israeli airplanes attacking Iranian assets, killing 15 Russian airmen on board.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin  (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Moscow’s decision to provide the S-300 advanced air defense system to Damascus, after Syrian forces shot down a Russian military airplane, places Israel in a new strategic dilemma regarding Iran’s military presence in Syria.
On September 17, Syrian air defenses accidentally shot down a Russian surveillance aircraft while retaliating against Israeli airplanes attacking Iranian assets, killing all 15 Russian airmen on board. Despite Israeli claims that the Syrian Army was responsible for the incident, Russian military officials insisted that Israel knowingly used the Russian airplane as a shield against Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.
Immediately after, Russia rejected Israel’s offer to send a diplomatic delegation to Moscow to defuse the incident. Instead, it gave Syria its advanced S-300 air defense system as well as electronic warfare capabilities, and warned Israel against further incursions into Syrian airspace. This transformed Israel’s relationship with Russia overnight.
Since 2015, Israel and Russia have avoided clashing in Syria, largely because Moscow has prioritized restoring President Bashar Assad’s control of all Syrian territory over managing Iran’s role in the conflict. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal rapport with President Vladimir Putin led Israel to believe that Russia would guarantee its freedom of action against Iran in Syria indefinitely. Just last month, an Israeli official boasted of conducting more than 200 air strikes that targeted Iranian forces and materiel in Syria since late 2016 without any effective Iranian response or Russian interference.
But now Moscow and Damascus believe that Syria’s war is ending, with Assad’s regime still in the saddle. Together they are striving to consolidate their recent gains, rebuild recaptured areas and facilitate some refugee return in the hope of ushering in a post-conflict era, while preparing to retake the last rebel enclave in Idlib. The International Crisis Group warned that in this phase Russia will be more sensitive to Israel’s brazen violations of Syrian sovereignty, not least because constant bombings deter foreign investment in reconstruction.
Russia seized the downing of its plane as a pretext to redefine its posture toward Israel. It will likely overlook occasional Israeli attacks on Iranian assets to avoid a direct clash with Israel, but demand that they be coordinated with Moscow well in advance. Whether Israel will comply is an open question, as is how Russia will react if it does not. But with Moscow’s heightened sensitivity to casualties as Putin’s popularity plummets, Israel risks becoming a scapegoat if Russia loses more soldiers. And to protect its planes from Syria’s S-300s, Israel would have to strike from greater distances, compromising accuracy and effectiveness.
MOSCOW IS inclined to clip Israel’s wings in Syria just as US policy is pushing in the opposite direction. The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord in May, reimposed sanctions on Iran, and maintains a military presence in eastern Syria partly directed at Iran. Washington also has indicated it will not reengage with Assad as long as he partners with Iran and told Israel to do the same. This posture encourages Israel to pursue its paramount goal of forcing Iran-backed forces to withdraw from Syria and to target Syrian Army units under Iran’s influence. But Russia stands in the way. While it competes with Iran for influence over the Assad regime, Moscow also views Iranian forces as a necessary pillar of Syria’s future security architecture. Russia, therefore, may help limit Iran’s military presence, but it will not work to end it.
Emboldened by the US and curtailed by Moscow, Israel must choose between a relatively stabilized post-conflict Syria with an Iranian military presence, and its maximalist, riskier objective of an Iran-free Syria. With the latter, Israel and Russia could clash as Moscow tries to prevent or deter Israeli attacks in certain parts of Syria. Alternatively, Moscow might respond to the harm Israeli strikes cause to Syrian stability by more markedly siding with Tehran, potentially by deploying Russian troops alongside Iranian ones in Syria or tightening its security cooperation with Tehran.
Israel has another option. Russia has offered to broker a truce between Iran and Israel in Syria. While not impartial, Russia can play the role of stabilizer by using its direct channels with both sides. This would be in Moscow’s own interests: it does not want to jeopardize the gains it has made or endanger the Assad regime’s assets and survival.
This approach requires Russia to persuade Israel to accept some Iran-backed forces in parts of Syria, possibly with an agreement that Israel has the right to respond expansively if these forces attack it. And Russia should convince Iran that some of the forces it backs – notably those embedded within the Syrian Army and donning its uniform – ultimately can endanger the Syrian regime’s stability. Because of the risk of Israeli retaliation, these forces should remain distinct from the Syrian Army, keep away from the Golan Heights cease-fire line and limit themselves to a strictly defensive posture. In assuming its role as chief power broker in Syria, Moscow should accept that it cannot redefine the rules without the consent of both Israel and Iran.
The writer is senior analyst in the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group.