Fateful misconception: Israel’s Russia mistake

As anyone can see, Israel’s course of action in Syria is aimed at preventing Iranian entrenchment there. Its strategy is understandable but impractical. This does not appear to bother Israel, which prides itself on solving complex problems by one simple means: the Air Force. If there is no drinking water in Gaza, no hospitals, no employment, and Hamas is in charge there, Israel’s panacea is to bash them from the air. And what is right for Gaza is right for Syria too. In fact, the similarity is clear. Chaos is the default position for those two disorganized entities. The Air Force has pounded Gaza for years, utilizing a vague “bank” of targets to push a distinct message: Quiet in exchange for quiet. However, the chaos in Gaza is only getting worse, and larger problems loom.

The downing of the Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses shows that when facing the Russians, Israel’s magic drug is not effective. This time Netanyahu is not facing Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, but Vladimir Putin. The Israeli assumption has been that it shares a common interest with Russia; both want the Iranians and Hezbollah out of Syria. Ergo, hammering Iranian targets there serves Russia’s interest, and the more, the better.

Sharing a “common interest” is an Israeli concept (the Russians have not used this term). Even in the case of downing the Russian surveillance plane, the Israelis were sure Putin would understand and forgive. They received a cold shower, however, when the Russians placed the blame squarely on Israel’s shoulders, claiming it was lying. Russia announced in retaliation that it would supply Damascus with four S-300 batteries within two weeks, giving the Syrians the capacity to down any aircraft not just in their own air space or Lebanon’s but in Israel’s too.

The connection between Russian and Israeli interests in Syria is elusive, if not contradictory. The Russians want to stabilize the situation, and they know that they cannot do so without the consent of all parties involved in the Syrian conflict, including the US, Turkey, Israel and especially Iran. The claim that the Russians want Iran out of Syria is based on the idea that the former would prefer to be the sole rulers there. Mere preference, though, is not enough in politics, even when Russia is the one that prefers. We might as well say that Israel would prefer to see all Arabs disappear. In reality, the Iranians were in Syria long before Putin sent his air force to save Assad, and there is no sign that they are leaving any time soon. They are also pulling the strings in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, so Syria is just one piece in their game.

Moreover, even after President Trump abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran, and despite Netanyahu’s supplications, the Russians continue sticking to the Iran nuclear deal while ignoring the American boycott. How can we say that Russia and Israel share the same strategic interest when, on an issue as important as the nuclear agreement, Putin opposes Netanyahu? The most one can say is that the Russians until now have put up with Israeli strikes on Syrian soil, expressing neither support nor dissatisfaction.

But times, it seems, are a’changin’. What Israel did while civil war raged in Syria is forbidden now that hostilities are winding down. Putin has reached understandings with the concerned parties about Syria’s future. Turkey has agreed to a demilitarized zone in Idlib in order to distance the Kurdish forces from its border. Israel lives with a Syrian-dominated, Iran-free security zone on the Golan Heights. The Russians get a seaport in Tartus and a military airport in western Syria. Iran’s sphere of influence includes territory close to Lebanon, Iraq, and Damascus, plus fat contracts for the rehabilitation of the Syrian infrastructure. From here on in, please do not disturb. In Russia’s view, if Israel has refrained from bombing Lebanon because of understandings with Hezbollah, it should also stop bombing Syria, which has become a de facto Russian protectorate.

The mess has another side to it, though. Israel’s assumed strategic partnership with Putin places it in stark contradiction to American interests in Syria. True, Trump wants Iran out of there, but he won’t lift a finger to help Russia consolidate its position. Israel was indirectly involved in arrangements limiting the Turkish and Iranian presence in Syria. The United States was not included among the arrangers, although it controls wide swaths of land in the northeast, a third of Syria, where oil wells and water resources are located. America’s UN representative Nikky Hailey said in an interview on September 23: “We will not pay for (Syrian) reconstruction to help Russia get out when this is their problem.” In other words, the US desires Russian entanglement in Syria and wants to extract a high price for the massacres and destruction that Russia perpetrated.

When the Obama and Trump administrations strongly condemned Russia’s murderous and indiscriminate bombings in Syria, Israel remained silent. This reflected a so-called “balanced and wise position” that it was advisable not to meddle in the Syrian civil war. When Putin sent his air force into battle and leveled Aleppo, Israel still remained silent. And when Putin defended Assad’s frequent use of chemical weapons, Israel was silent.

Israeli silence was a critical factor in helping Russia to finish the job and crush the opposition to Assad. Israel was happy about Russian intervention and wanted a strong landlord with whom understandings could be brokered. Israel also returned to the old arrangement with the Damascus regime: stopping aid to the rebels and accepting the return of the Syrian army to the Golan Heights. The 200-plus bombing raids deep inside Syria have been the quid pro quo that Netanyahu got from Putin in exchange for his silence. The debt has now been paid, Russia opens a new chapter, and Israel must adapt itself to the changing reality.

Netanyahu understands that the Russian plane incident has created a new reality. The strategic partnership with Putin is rapidly mutating into a strategic confrontation. Israelis can say that Russia’s report about the circumstances of the incident is dubious, and that the total rejection of Israel’s version stems from internal tensions. There is indeed growing domestic criticism of Putin because he has raised the retirement age. However, in reality, the Syrian abscess is putting pressure on Russia; it endangers Putin’s status far more than domestic pension problems. At the same time, the US openly declares its hope that Russia will fail in Syria, and it wants to reduce the old bear to its proper post-Cold-War proportions.

Netanyahu faces a dilemma. Should he support the Americans and enter into confrontation with the Russians? Or should he help Putin stabilize the Syrian situation? Or is there a way to dance at both weddings as he used to do? If the Israeli cabinet decides to resume air strikes as if nothing has happened, it could be a serious strategic mistake. It might involve Israel in the last kind of war it would ever want. Even with the best air force in the world, Israel has set itself an unattainable strategic goal. Leaving Assad in power was the original sin, and now the price will be paid.

* Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat