Russian-Israeli relations reach new heights

Yossi Mekelberg

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A hastily arranged meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back in September caused some raising of eyebrows.

It took place almost immediately after Russia made its intentions known to intervene militarily in Syria. This was enough to raise the alarm bells among the decision makers in Israel to seek an urgent meeting, aimed at ensuring that both countries’ interests would not clash over the Syrian skies.

Accompanied by top Israeli generals for his talks with Putin, Netanyahu sought to coordinate Russian military operations in Syria with Moscow to avoid both accidental firing inside Israel, as well as clashes between the two air forces. After the meeting the Israeli prime minister said somewhat cryptically, that “In Syria, I’ve defined my goals. They’re to protect the security of my people and my country. Russia has different goals. But they shouldn't clash.”

The current concern in Israel is that the theater of war in Syria is becoming increasingly congested with international actors, especially Russia, and consequently its maneuvering room there is becoming increasingly restricted.

Yossi Mekelberg

Considering the escalation in relations between Turkey and Russia as a result of the downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber aircraft last week, the importance of such military coordination in the currently congested Syrian airspace became obvious.

In contrast, when a Russian warplane recently erroneously entered Israeli-controlled airspace from Syria, it was warned and immediately returned to Syria without further frictions.

In the relatively small Syrian airspace, the U.S.-led international coalition and Russian and Israeli air forces are carrying out a considerable number of sorties. Not all of them have the same aims in mind, though with the exception of Israel, they are all committed to destroying ISIS. Nevertheless, they also run the risk of clashing with one another.

Only time will tell whether a very irritated Turkey was just looking for an opportunity to shoot down a Russian fighter jet, as an act of deterrence from future violations of its airspace, or rather if there was an agenda regarding the nature of the war in Syria. Whatever the circumstances of this incident, it is precisely the sort of situation, bearing in mind its far-reaching implications, that Israel wants to avoid. The conundrum for Israel is how to achieve this target without compromising its strategic aims in Syria.

Air superiority

For decades Israel has had complete superiority in patrolling the skies of both Syria and Lebanon. It enabled intensive intelligence gathering and, on occasion, the carrying out of military operations. The country’s two fundamental strategic aims in Syria have not changed since the war in its northern neighbor’s country began. Its primary concern was to ensure that weapons and ammunition, which could change the balance of power between the Jewish state and Hezbollah, would not be transferred from or through Syria to the Iranian-backed Lebanese movement. While Hezbollah is one of the backbones of support for Bashar al-Assad, it is regarded as an arch enemy by the Israelis. The second red line drawn by the Israeli security was to deter the ‘leaking’ of Syrian hostilities into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, or even further into Israel proper. This two-tier approach has been adhered to for nearly five years by attacking suspected arms convoys and thus stopping them from heading toward Hezbollah’s strongholds. Israel has also been responding with, mostly restrained, military power to any firing across the border with Syria. The current concern in Israel is that the theater of war in Syria is becoming increasingly congested with international actors, especially Russia, and consequently its maneuvering room there is becoming increasingly restricted.

Converging and conflicting interests

Russia and Israel have both converging and conflicting interests in war-torn Syria. Originally Israel was rather agnostic over whether it was in its best interests for the Assad regime to survive in power. But considering the alternatives to the current regime in Damascus and especially the rise of ISIS, Israel is tacitly getting closer to Russia’s position that the survival of the current regime in Syria is in its best interest. However, for the Assad regime to prevail, Israel has to swallow the bitter pill of Iranian and Hezbollah active involvement in Syria for probably a very long time. These concerns are surmounted by Israel’s uneasiness about the sale of Russian S-300 anti-air missiles to Iran and the visit this year to Moscow by Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, which is regarded by Israel as a threatening entity.

Relations between Israel and Russia under Putin have improved in recent years, as has military cooperation.

Yossi Mekelberg

These developments are perceived by the Israeli decision makers as an existential, direct, and immediate threat. Netanyahu went as far, in a recent interview with CNN, to imply that Iran might attempt to transfer nuclear weapons to Hezbollah. He warned that no one would stop his country from averting such an eventuality. Regardless of the customary Netanyahu nuclear rhetoric, Israel is genuinely troubled by the transfer of advanced military conventional capability to Hezbollah. Nevertheless, if thwarting it runs the risk of a direct Turkey-like clash with Russia, then at least avoiding an accidental clash is an imperative for both countries.

Both Moscow and Jerusalem will have to handle this new situation with great caution. Relations between Israel and Russia under Putin have improved in recent years, as has military cooperation. Recently, for instance, Israel has agreed to sell 10 unmanned IAI Searcher 3 drones to Russia, despite concerns about the close military ties between Russia and Iran. Also on a political-personal level Netanyahu has a rather keen interest in nurturing a better understanding with Russia, especially if one considers his strained relations with American President Obama. However, in the ever-growing intricacies of the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, Russia’s proximity to the Israeli border presents mixed fortunes for Israel.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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