Won’t Back Down

Won’t Back Down

Rising tension Between Russia and Israel in Syria.
Micah Watterson

Russia’s strong support of Syria’s Assad regime, along with Israel’s commitment to continuing operations in Syria, increases the likelihood of conflict between Russia and Israel in the region because Russia’s actions demonstrate determination to resist any threat to its influence in Syria. Seven and a half years of civil war have made Syria a battleground for competing world powers. Russia, the United States, Israel, and Iran all perceive threats or opportunity in the chaos the war has created. However, even as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad solidifies his power over the rebels, tensions among the nations involved show little sign of subsiding. On September 17, 2018, anti-aircraft missiles fired by Assad’s forces accidentally downed a Russian reconnaissance plane, killing all 15 crewmembers. Only weeks later, on October 3, 2018, Russia deployed four mobile launchers armed with S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria. The delivery represents a serious upgrade from the Russian S-200 missiles Assad had been using. [1] The diverging interpretations of Russia and Israel toward the incident coupled with their responses to its aftermath give strong indications of increasing tension in the region despite Russia’s expressed desire for a positive relationship with Israel.


Russia blames Israel for the downing of its aircraft, although Israel’s culpability is highly questionable. When Israel and Russia began simultaneous operations in Syria, the countries established protocols to avoid confrontation and even set up a secret hotline to warn one another of impending operations. [2] Russia accused the Israeli aircraft of violating these protocols by using the Russian intelligence plane as a shield for their strike. The Kremlin also protested that Israel had only given them one minute of warning before launching the strike and that the operation was carried out in the Latakia province which contains a Russian airbase. [3] However, analysts at the Washington Institute argue that Israel gave sufficient warning to the Russian military. Although Israel only gave one minute of warning before the mission was launched, 24 minutes elapsed from the time Russia was warned to the time Syria’s antiaircraft missiles were launched. This should have been enough time for the Russian aircraft to move to safety. Thus, these analysts suggest that blaming Israel for the event is simply a propaganda campaign designed to downplay the incompetence of Russian and Syrian forces. [4]


Russia has historically worked for a positive relationship with Israel, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to downplay the statements of his generals regarding the downing of the plane. Putin casts Israel as a key Russian partner in the Middle East. [5] Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have forged a close relationship. Russia has even accommodated Israeli requests at the expense of its ally Iran. Russia persuaded Iran to move its force in Syria back from the border of the Golan Heights, replacing them with Russian patrols, and Russia allows Israel to strike Iranian targets in Syria with impunity. Putin even assured Israel the week of the crash that he regarded the downing of the plane as an accident. The two leaders seemed to have maintained a cordial relationship, promising to continue their dialogue. [6] The pair even expressed the desire to meet to discuss the issue. [7] It appears that Putin is anxious to maintain a good relationship with Israel.


However, despite Putin’s gestures towards Israel, Russia’s true priority is supporting Syria, even in the face of international pressure. Contrary to his reassurances towards Israel, Putin told Assad in a phone call a few days later that he blamed Israel for the plane crash. Russia’s top military officials also blame the crash entirely on Israel. [6] In addition, Russia’s actions speak volumes against Israel. Russia has reinforced Syria’s air defense in response to the incident. It has also promised to increase its electronic interference efforts against Israeli combat planes in Syria. Clearly the most significant indication of Russia’s continued commitment to Syria is the sale of improved anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. [8] Both Israel and the United States condemned the transfer. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the move as a “serious escalation” of Russian military intervention in the region. [9]


Since the missiles currently represent little threat to Israel, their sale to Syria represents more of a statement by Russia and an indication of potential future escalation. Although it is currently unclear who will have operational authority over the missiles, it seems unlikely that Syria would receive that authority any time soon. When Russia first deployed S200 missiles in Syria, it took years for the Russians to grant full control of them to the Syrians. Russia has so far refrained from firing its own S-400 missiles in Syria against US or Israeli targets, so it is unlikely it would authorize indiscriminate use of the missiles by the Syrians. A real threat would arise if Russia turned over complete control of the missile systems to the Syrians. Syria’s deployment of the weapons would likely be more zealous than Russia’s. Although the have held tactical control over the S-200s for years, the Syrians still could not keep from shooting down a friendly plane. Also, Syria is much less concerned about its reputation in the international community than Russia, so fear of international condemnation is unlikely to serve as a deterrent for deploying the weapons. [4]


The irony of Russia’s choice to respond to Syria’s blunder by giving them better weapons demonstrates the depth of Russia’s commitment to Syria. Russia’s decision to blame Israel, despite her questionable culpability, and forgive Syria is a clear indicator of Russia’s willingness to escalate tensions with Israel if that is what it takes to maintain power in Syria. In a way, Russia’s credibility in the Middle East is tied to the success of Syria, since Russia has spent so much in support of the Assad regime. Russia continues to unequivocally support Syria because it sees influence in Syria as foothold for greater regional power. [10]


However, despite the threats, Israel will not stop its raids into Syria, because it cannot ignore the threat in Syria from Iran and Hezbollah. Iran launches missile strikes from Syria into Israel. [1] In addition, Iran uses Syria as a conduit to transfer weapons to the anti-Israel terrorist group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon. [2] Israel has declared its intention to keep sending strikes into Syria, confirming that it has operated in Syria even since the downing of the Russian plane. [11] Israel still has sufficient capability to effectively operate in Syria, despite the upgraded missiles. Their acquisition of the F-35 stealth fighter and their robust pilot training are more than a match for the anti-aircraft missiles. However, the new weapons will force Israel to take greater care in its operations. [12] Overall, Israel refuses to be intimidated by Russia’s stance in Syria, since it cannot allow the threats in Syria to grow.


Israel and Russia’s mutual commitment to operations in Syria is a recipe for conflict. The risk of confrontation between Israel and Russia in Syria has never been higher. [3] Ironically, by trying to bolster Syria’s defenses, Putin may have made the region more dangerous. Israel has said it will target any missile battery that fires at Israeli planes. While conflict is not guaranteed, the mounting friction between Israel and Russia creates volatility that could easily disintegrate into conflict. [8] Both Israel and Russia have vested interests in Syria, and those interests cannot harmoniously coexist forever. However, neither country seems willing to back down without a fight. If the situation continues on its current path, conflict between Israel and Russia over Syria grows increasingly likely.

  1. Pavel K. Baev, “Putin’s Anti-Israeli ‘Surge’ in Syria,” The Jamestown Foundation, 9 October 2018. https:// jamestown.org/program/putins-antiisraeli-surge-in-syria/
  2. David J. Bercuson, “Putin may not want a fight with Israel, but he may get it,” The National Post, 5 October 2018. https://nationalpost.com/opinion/david-j -bercuson-putin-may-not-want-a-fightwith-israel-but-he-may-get-it
  3. Yury Barmin, ‘What next for RussianIsraeli relations?” Aljazeera, 24 Septem
    ber 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/ indepth/opinion/russian-israeli-relations180924164725360.html
  4. Assaf Orion, “After the Ilyushin Crash: Israel’s Anti-Iran Operations in Syria,” The Washington Institute, 3 October 2018. https:// www.washingtoninstitute.org/policyanalysis/view/after-the-ilyushin-crashisraels-anti-ira
  5. Liz Sly, Anton Troianovski, and, Ruth Eglash, “Russia revives allegations of Israeli culpability in downed plane in Syria,” The Washington Post, 23 September 2018. https:// www.washingtonpost.com/world/ middle_east/russia-revives-allegations-of -israeli-culpability-in-downed-plane-insyria/2018/09/23/ac6741de-bf36-11e89f4f-a1b7af255aa5_story.html? fbclid=IwAR3ZYdpiQnPSR5yKmNsVwkwT1j2sTFRd2JruUQPPtwfWY4_elOWQQ_uBp0&utm_term=.ee4 ed4031aac
  6. Anton Troianovski, Loveday Morris, and Liz Sly, “In a blow to Israel, Russia says it will send Syria powerful antiaircraft missiles,” The Washington Post, 24 September 2018. https:// www.washingtonpost.com/world/inblow-to-israel-russia-says-it-will-sendsyria-powerful-antiaircraftmissiles/2018/09/24/674745b8-bffe11e8-be77-516336a26305_story.html? utm_term=.9777220e8216
  7. Noa Landau, “Israel Has Operated in Syria Since Downing of Russian Plane, Source Says,” Haaretz, 29 October 2018. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/ israel-has-operated-in-syria-sincedowning-of-russian-plane-sources-say1.6608832? fbclid=IwAR1Lk963UHqWN2lvHcf4ZnncT 3QtzjoWs_YYIebl8Ck-hozoM0zuCYpkBt8
  8. “Russia’s Plans to Deter Israeli Airstrikes in Syria Could Backfire,” Stratfor, 27 September 2018. https:// worldview.stratfor.com/article/russiasplans-deter-israeli-airstrikes-syria-couldbackfire
  9. “Golan Heights and South/West Syria,” The Crisis Group, 2 November 2018. https://www.crisisgroup.org/trigger-list/ iran-us-trigger-list/flashpoints/golanheights
  10. Anna Borshchevskaya, “Russia giving Syria the S-300 is more message than menace,” The Hill, 16 October 2018. https://thehill.com/opinion/ international/411455-russia-giving-syriathe-s-300-is-more-message-than-menace
  11. Ori Lewis, “Israel has struck in Syria since Russia plane downed: Israeli official,” Reuters, 29 October 2018. https:// www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-syria/ israel-has-struck-in-syria-since-russiaplane-downed-israeli-officialidUSKCN1N325F? fbclid=IwAR3E1rG2NxmopGIwpkxc1CY3K NXHUU94j9_37pF08GcIJZ5ZwN0iXF__8q 4
  12. “Iran and Israel: Tension Over Syria,” The Congressional Research Service, 24 October 2018. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/ mideast/IF10858.pdf

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