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The Russian announcement raises a set of urgent questions: Is coordination between the two parties now outdated, and that there are Russian efforts to readjust it to suit new developments?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?
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
B. Economic Reasons
C. Political and Security Reasons
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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