This is something I wrote about in September 2015, when Arabic media carried a report that Israel had agreed to coordinate military air operations over Syria with Russia.
Once Russia established a schedule of combat air operations in Syria, the Russians would want to exercise a pocket veto over the air operations of other nations there. Once they had anti-air weapon systems deployed around Syria, the Russians would be able to.
And right on schedule, the Israelis are indicating that that’s what they’ve run into in Syria, where the activities of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime itself continue to make it necessary for Israel to monitor Syrian territory, and sometimes conduct air strikes there.
In September, the Arabic media report crowed that “the promenade era of Israel over the sky of Syria is ending.”
With the Russians there – especially with the Russians taking sides in the ground war; especially with the Russians taking Assad’s and Iran’s side in the ground war – that “promenade era” had to end.
I wrote in September that the Israelis wouldn’t take efforts at Russian control lying down – but that they would find themselves increasingly butting heads.
Israel may be able to make some accommodations, even if they aren’t everything Russia suggests. If the IAF is blasting weapons convoys headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon, there might be room for avoiding Syrian territory, for the most part.
If any anti-Israel force – whether Hezbollah or another entity – is setting up firing positions north of the Golan, I don’t see Israel agreeing to ask permission from Russia to deal with that problem. Israel’s response, I have no doubt, would be: “Keep your men out of that zone, because we’re going to defend ourselves.”
That won’t be satisfactory forever, but I have no doubt the IDF and the Netanyahu government will sprint to get ahead of this problem. Fighting to defend Israel will become difficult unless the Israelis can enforce some amount of latitude in their arrangements with Russia.
According to the Netanyahu government, that has been happening in recent months. The government says IAF planes have been fired on twice in recent weeks by Russian forces. The principal reason for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Russia this coming week is said to be a high-level discussion of the issue.
Concern has been amplified in the last week by Russians reportedly scrambling a fighter intercept of Israeli jets operating off the coast of Syria over the Mediterranean.
Although the Aviationist refers to these reports about IAF planes being fired on, and intercepted, as “conflicting,” I assess it differently. The events appear to be different ones, occurring at different times.
The Israeli government says President Rivlin actually addressed the firing incidents when he visited Russia in March – and that means the events took place before he went there in the middle of the month. The occasion for Russian forces to fire on IAF warplanes was probably an Israeli air strike in each case, such as the ones described here and here in January and February.
It is an error to think that Russian jet fighters fired on the Israeli planes. It was probably anti-aircraft guns from positions around Damascus, which is where the air strikes took place (and where such IAF strikes typically occur). The Israelis could easily tell that the guns were firing at them, and that it was modern, Russian-manned guns doing the shooting. There is little ambiguity to worry about in the firing situation they were probably in. If the Israelis think the Russians shot at them, they can be presumed to be right.
The air intercept off the Syrian coast is a separate matter. Without knowing the geometry of the event, it’s hard to judge whether the Russians acted with the restraint that U.S. forces would, or if they were on a hair trigger. Unless a bunch of people were asleep, the Russians had to know the aircraft were Israeli. The fact that Netanyahu wants to address this with Putin suggests to me that the encounter was unnecessarily excited.
A couple of comments. One, if the Russians fired and didn’t hit the IAF planes, it’s quite possible that the shots were meant as a warning. We know nothing about the geometry of these events either: the Israeli jets could have been low enough, while conducting air strikes, for the Russian guns to hit them, but it’s also possible the jets never got that low. In either case, the Israelis would know they had been shot at. But in the latter case, they’d be more certain the shots were a warning.
The situation is still a dangerous one, however. Warning shots can’t be accepted as routine, in an operating environment where you want to keep a lid on escalation.
The other comment is that this is one of a number of things that will drive Israel inevitably to horse-trade more with Russia, and indeed with other nations in the region, as Netanyahu tries to retain the independence of action needed to defend Israel’s frontiers.
It’s untenable for the Israelis to have their hands tied in policing the threat from Syria and Lebanon. The terrain between Damascus and southern Lebanon has to be monitored and held at risk by the IDF, for Israeli security. The territory of Israel can be ranged by artillery from the mountain redoubts surrounding Damascus; this is not an optional priority for the IDF.
But Russia, with forces in-country, is committed precisely to keeping Assad in Damascus, and can’t look with neutrality on the actions of any force that fires into that battle space.
This isn’t a static situation. By nature, it can’t last; it will cause bigger things to be transformed in the coming days. Basically, Iran will either ride Russia’s veto on Israeli operations into the position the mullahs want in Syria, or Israel will horse-trade over time for Russia’s favor in accepting some level of Israeli discretion, and/or reining Iran in.
Either way, the Russians are in the catbird seat: the Israelis have to court them. Just another delightful consequence of Obama’s tenure in a much-diminished office.