The Russian and Israeli sides have been coordinating on Syria for many years, during which the two sides managed, with rare exceptions, to prevent any clash between their forces. Despite Russia's assertion that the Syrian airspace is under control and impenetrable, Israel launched hundreds of air raids on sites affiliated with Iran and its militias across the Syrian territory.

Through a hotline and secret understandings with Israel, Russia has managed this delicate and dangerous situation since its intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015, provided that it does not affect the security of the Syrian regime or its political future. The Russian behavior has always been analyzed as an indication of Moscow's rejection of the Iranian presence in Syria, and that it has exploited the Israeli strikes to create a new balance in Syria in which the Russian role will be the most effective and influential, and to show Iran a party unable to protect itself from Israeli targeting.

The Russian announcement raises a set of urgent questions: Is coordination between the two parties now outdated, and that there are Russian efforts to readjust it to suit new developments? Or is it just a Russian tactical move, as described by Israeli military experts? Or is it a real strategic shift? Does this mean that the room available for Israel to act in Syria is closing? Or is this conclusion premature?

New Developments

In an unprecedented announcement, the Hmeimim base, the center of the Russian military command in Syria, announced last June that the Syrian air defenses had responded to three Israeli raids during the last third of that month and that they had downed all the missiles launched by the Israeli aircraft using the Russia-supplied air defense systems "Pantsyr-S and Buk-2ME" (and this was repeated in the last raid, which took place on August 20).

Following this announcement, a senior official close to the Russian Defense Ministry said in an interview with Israel Hayom newspaper that "his country has been acting of late to change the rules of the game and limit Israeli strikes inside Syria," adding that "a formal framework is being set out for delineating what is and is not permitted inside Syria moving forward".

It is remarkable that there have been no comments from Israeli security and military officials on these developments, although some Israeli reports spoke of "these circles being surprised by this matter." This means that the Russian side did not inform the Israelis in advance of any change in the rules of the game in Syria, even though the Russians' discontent with the Israeli actions did not disappear. This was preceded by statements by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in which he said that Moscow is disturbed by the Israeli behavior, which does not commit to informing Russia in advance of its intention to strike targets that it considers a threat to it.

The Israelis believe that as long as they respect Russia's red lines, their understanding with it is valid and does not require any modification or change in its basic rules. The most important of these red lines is that Israel should not interfere in favor of the Syrian opposition or harm Al-Assad regime. In addition, Israel, in order to avoid a collision with the Russian forces in Syria, launches all its air raids on Syrian territory from the Lebanese airspace or from the airspace over the border triangle between Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.

A New Russian Approach: Why Now?

There are a number of reasons behind the change in the Russian position on the Israeli strikes in Syria, and they can be categorized as follows:

A. Reasons related to development on the international arena

  1. Reports have claimed that Israel intends to provide Ukraine with its "Iron Dome" system to help Kyiv fortify its defenses against any possible Russian attack. Although the credibility of such reports is low because Israel must take into account the impact of such a step on its coordination with Russia in Syria, which is considered a security priority for Israel, the Ukrainian-Israeli relations are very developed, and there have been reports of Israel selling types of weapons for Ukraine. Thus, Russia will not find a better way than to narrow the space allowed for Israel to act in Syria as a means of punishing it for its support for Ukraine, or at least to warn it of going down that road.
  2. The Russian decision is linked to understandings between Putin and Biden in Geneva in mid-June, which are the result of the Biden administration's pursuit of an "artificial peace" with Iran to advance nuclear negotiations. A Russian source told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on July 24, 2021, that "Moscow was calculating its reactions in the past because Tel Aviv was coordinating all its moves with Washington at a time when the Russian communication channels with Washington were cut off. In light of the current contacts with the US side, it seems that Moscow has obtained a confirmation that Washington does not welcome the continuous Israeli raids."

B. Economic Reasons

  1.  It goes without saying that Israel's continued attack on targets inside Syria has embarrassed the Russian defense industries, which are an important source of income for the Russian economy. Russia has designed a huge propaganda campaign for its weapons, after testing them in Syria, and aspires to establish itself in new arms markets, especially air defenses. It was clear that the statements issued by the Russian military command center at the Hmeimim base focused on the "Pantsyr-S and Buk-2ME" systems, which are somewhat outdated when compared to the "S-200" and "S-300" systems. It is as if Russia wants to say that its old systems were able to thwart attacks launched by the latest models of US-made Israeli aircraft, so what would be the case if Russia used its cutting-edge systems?
  2. Russia is trying to promote that the war in Syria is over after the last presidential elections and that Syria is a stable country and ready to start the reconstruction process. Accordingly, it would not be surprising to say that Russia hopes for great economic benefits from this, and there is no doubt that the continuation of Israeli strikes harms Russian propaganda, and gives a different picture of the security situation in Syria.

C. Political and Security Reasons

  1. The Israeli air raids are approaching sites either directly supervised by Russian officers, or jointly managed by the Russian side with the Syrian regime, which may pose risks to the Russian forces in these sites. The Israeli strikes revealed that Russian officers are present in most of the Syrian military sites, especially in Aleppo, in defense laboratories and scientific research centers, in addition to specialized teams’ centers, specifically missile teams.
  2. Moscow sees the new government in Israel as an opportunity for Russia to readjust the rules of the game and agree on new rules. In addition to the weakness of this Israeli government, the Russian leadership believes that it no longer has to abide by outdated rules because it believes that the situation in Syria has changed and is different from what it had been in 2015 when Russia was forced to conclude understandings with regional parties to facilitate its Syrian mission.

Summary and Conclusions

Recent developments reveal some aspects of the Russian impasse in Syria. It also highlights a combination of contradictory understandings that Russia has held with regional parties with conflicting interests and goals. Moscow has so been unable to fulfill its obligations to undermine Iranian influence in Syria. Rather, it has contributed to strengthening this influence through its need for Iranian militias to extend Russian military control over Syrian territory. The question today is: Can Russia prevent Israel from targeting the Iranian presence in Syria?

Israel considers Iran's success in establishing its presence in Syria a red line that threatens its national security. Therefore, Israel does not hesitate to show that it is ready to go far in this confrontation, even if it comes to the point of launching an all-out war. There is no doubt that Israel has alternatives that it may use when necessary, including the use of stealth aircraft, such as the F-35, which Russian radars cannot detect. It may resort to destroying the latest Russian air defense systems, which Moscow fears because of the damage it may cause to the reputation of these systems that Russia seeks to market as the most modern air defenses in the world.

It is more likely that Russia will reverse its decision to confront the Israeli air raids, and will be satisfied with keeping its policy towards Israel within the limits of expressing discontent without translating it into military actions on the ground. What confirms this is that Israeli military and security circles still confirm that there are no contacts from Russia in this regard and that the matter does not go beyond uncorroborated statements by unknown Russian officials. Certain details may be agreed upon, such as obligating Israel to inform Moscow in advance of strikes, and to stay away from locations where the Russians are deployed.

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