Why Israel Should Be Worried About Russia’s Role in Syria
On September 21, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, a meeting that focused on staying out of each other’s way in Syria. According to statements by both leaders, it seems the meeting went well. Netanyahu emphasized Israel’s main concerns in Syria, namely arms shipments to Hezbollah and Iran opening a new front against Israel in southern Syria. Putin gave his own analysis of the situation, stressing that the Assad regime is weak. Both sides agreed on forming a joint committee to coordinate their military activities in Syria.
Watching from the sidelines, some analysts in Israel posited that this meeting — and Russia’s increased involvement in Syria — is a net positive for Israel. Giora Eiland, who was the national security advisor under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told me in a conversation that the new alliance between Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah can deescalate tensions between this axis and Israel. For example, Eiland claimed that Hezbollah will need to take into account the Russian interest of maintaining peace with Israel and might therefore avoid provoking the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Curtailing the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s advance toward western Syria will be another benefit, according to former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. While these statements might make Israelis optimistic about Russia stepping up, they do not tell the full story. Overall, it appears that Russia’s involvement will be a net negative for Israel.
In recent years, Israel has worked very hard to prevent any advanced weapons systems from falling into the hands of Hezbollah, which is currently Israel’s most potent adversary. As early as January 2013, Israel drew a redline: It would not allow Syria and Iran to exploit the chaos in Syria to boost deliveries of sophisticated weaponry — advanced anti-ship missiles such as the Yakhont, or advanced surface-to-air missiles such as the SA-17 and SA-22 — to Hezbollah. On multiple occasions, the Israeli air force targeted these shipments and destroyed the weapons systems. This, it was hoped, would change the risk calculations of the parties involved.
Israel has also repeatedly asked Russia to not sell these weapons to the Assad regime, warning that the weapons would eventually be transferred to Hezbollah. Russia did not comply with some of these requests. Russian weapons were finding their way to Hezbollah via Syria long before the Syrian civil war started. During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, Hezbollah targeted Israeli tanks with an array of advanced anti-tank missiles. Most of them were Russian-made and had been sold to Syria, yet somehow ended up in Hezbollah’s arms depots.
Russia’s growing presence in Syria will limit Israel’s ability to cope with these arms shipments to Hezbollah. Consider this scenario: Israel detects an arms convoy in Syria it believes is on its way to Hezbollah. Through the joint committee with Moscow, Israel notifies Russia that it has credible intelligence that suggests that this convoy is heading to Hezbollah. Russia asks for Israel to present the intelligence indicating Hezbollah’s involvement. Israel, in order to not endanger sensitive intelligence sources, does not show Russia the incriminating evidence, fearing Russia will share this intelligence with Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria. In response, Russia declares that it sees no such threat and warns Israel that an Israeli attack on Syrian territory would interfere with Russian operations in the country. Israel would then find itself in a bind: allow the arms convoy to reach its destination, or challenge the Russian military. Given the advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles recently installed in Syria, Israel would need to think hard before ordering an attack deep inside Syria. This leaves Israel with the possibility of targeting the convoy the minute it crosses into Lebanon, but that option is risky too, as it could mean escalation with Hezbollah.
On the Israeli–Syrian border, where Iran recently increased its presence, the situation will be complicated as well. In his meeting with Putin, Netanyahu stated that Iran, assisted by the Syrian army, is trying to open a “second terrorist front” in the Golan. Putin dismissed Netanyahu’s claim, saying that the Syrian army is weak and barely able to uphold the Syrian state, let alone open a new front. Putin added that, as far as he knew, “these bombardments” — that is, the bombardments of Israel from Syrian territory — “are carried out by homemade systems,” implying that the Syrian regime is not involved.
Putin’s response to Netanyahu indicates that an Israeli retaliation against the Assad regime will probably not be received kindly in the Kremlin. As Moscow’s objective is to strengthen the Syrian regime, every actor that works against Assad or its partners might be challenged by Russia. Last Sunday, on September 27, Israel targeted Syrian army posts on the Israeli–Syrian border in response to errant mortar fire that landed in Israeli territory.
Putin criticized Israel’s attack and added that he was worried by Israel’s periodic attacks. It seems that in this attack, Israel tried to test the waters with Russia. If Russia condemned such a limited attack on an inconsequential post, how might it react to a broader Israeli attack deeper in Syria as the one that occurred on August 20? According to Amos Harel, a longtime military analyst for Haaretz newspaper, Putin’s condemnation shows that despite Israeli optimism, Russia will seek to restrict Israel’s freedom of movement in Syria. If more rockets are fired into Israel from the Syrian side of the Golan, Israel might be able to target the organization behind the attack or Syrian military posts on the border, but bombing Syrian posts closer to Damascus would likely be off-limits.
Russia fighting for Assad will also strengthen Hezbollah, which has more than 6,000 fighters in the country. The organization’s involvement in Syria has come at a price: over 1,200 Hezbollah fighters have been killed and many more injured, according to Israeli security officials I spoke with recently. Hezbollah is stretched thin. In recent weeks Iran sent hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters to alleviate the burden on the organization. Russia ramping up military involvement in Syria will reduce the pressure on Hezbollah by enabling the organization to consolidate its forces in fewer areas. This will give Hezbollah the opportunity to allocate more resources back to Lebanon and to keep preparing itself for a conflict with Israel.
Recently, reports had indicated that Iran and Hezbollah will launch a ground offensive in northwestern Syria, backed by Russian airstrikes. Along with reports that Russia might send so-called “volunteers” to join the battle, it seems that the coordination between Russia and Hezbollah will only increase, including a possible scenario in which Hezbollah and Russia will fight together on the ground. Hezbollah has already gained significant experience conducting complex offensive operations in Syria. Fighting with the Russian military will give Hezbollah an even a greater boost: learning from one of the strongest and most experienced militaries in the world.
Former IDF officials, diplomats, and academics recently simulated a war between Israel and Hezbollah. The exercise emphasized Russia’s increasing interest in Hezbollah, with one scenario even suggesting that Russia would not let Israel inflict a decisive blow against the organization while it shares common cause with Russia. This rationale would only be stronger if Russian troops and Hezbollah fighters work together on the ground.
The situation in Syria is a symptom of Russia’s rising overall influence in the Middle East. While the United States still has the greatest military presence in the region and better relations with many of the local powers, Arab and Israeli leaders are increasingly hedging their bets with Russia because they perceive the White House as less committed to shaping outcomes in the Middle East than an increasingly assertive Kremlin. This explains why Arab leaders were lining up over the summer to visit Moscow and meet Putin.
For Israel, an assertive Russia that looks to revive its relations with Arab countries mainly through military exports and nuclear energy cooperation should be troubling. Russia is already going forward with supplying Iran with the S-300 aerial defense system, which will improve Iran’s capabilities significantly. According to Eiland, it is unlikely that Russia will supply the S-300 system to Syria, but if it does, it will put the majority of Israeli air traffic under the threat of surface-to-air missiles.
Future Russian arms deals are already being discussed with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which might influence the balance of power in the Middle East. Even if the probability of a conflict between Israel and another Arab country is currently low, one of Israel’s core national security interests is to maintain its military advantage. This dynamic, along with Arab countries’ own fear of Iran’s growing influence, could set off another regional arms race. In the long term, Russia might also increase its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, a move that according to Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, could disrupt Israel’s naval activity in the area.
The reality is that Russia’s increasing role in Syria does not give Israel many options; if anything, it actively shuts them down. Israel is not in a position to challenge Russian maneuvers. The only thing that Israel can do right now is to maintain its current course: talking to the Russians and trying to avoid misunderstandings. One of the few options Israel has is to turn to its historic partner, the United States, and try to figure out America’s next steps in Syria. It is in Israel’s interest that the Unites States will not concede its leading role in the Middle East.
On November 9, when President Obama meets Netanyahu in the White House, it would be wise for the Israeli prime minister to bring up Israel’s concerns about Russia’s increasing role, mainly to get a better sense of what the American response to Moscow’s recent push will be. Israel needs to know that its redlines will be respected by Russia, and the administration can help with that by stating the same redlines to the Russians. Doubts will surface in Israel whether this administration can help enforce Israel’s redlines in Syria, especially in light of apparent frictions between Jerusalem and Washington, but as both countries try to bury the hatchet, this can be a good place to start.
Nadav Pollak is the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A former analyst for the government of Israel, Pollak also served as an NCO in the IDF Intelligence Corps.
Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces