Will Russia's involvement in Syria end up burning its ties with Israel?

Israel has maintained a good relationship with the Kremlin amid Russia's tensions with the West. But as the Assad regime's victories bring Iran closer to the Israeli border, Russia is finding it harder to balance its needs in Syria with its Israeli ties.

Ali Hashisho/Reuters
Russian military vehicles travel through eastern Ghouta near Damascus, Syria, April 23.

As geopolitical tensions spiked between Russia and West in recent years, one staunch US ally has been something of outlier toward Moscow: Israel.

Israeli emissaries failed to show up for a crucial 2014 UN vote condemning Russia for annexing Crimea. Israel has taken no active part in several waves of Western sanctions against Moscow. It recently declined to expel any Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning even as the West collectively kicked out 150 of them; and last year it actually increased its bilateral trade with Russia by over 20 percent to more than $3 billion. This week Israel announced it was resuming talks on establishing a free trade zone with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Amid a general, accelerating breakdown in East-West contacts, Israel and Russia have so far succeeded in maintaining a robust, practically-oriented dialog underpinned by what is reportedly a warm working relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin.

But despite that mutual determination to steer clear of the global storm, things may be reaching a breaking point in Syria. While Russia and Israel have hitherto been able to manage their differences there so far, Israel is becoming increasingly concerned as Iran, Russia's ally in Syria and Israel's main enemy, gets more firmly ensconced in Syria.

Recent victories by the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, have opened up the possibility of a peace settlement to the multi-sided seven-year-old war that could permanently entrench Iran in the country, in sites including military bases near Israel’s border. Israel has signaled that would be unacceptable.

“Israel and Russia have been coordinating in Syria, and there is an important element of mutual understanding between them,” says Alexander Shumilin, a Middle East expert with the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) in Moscow. “But views about Syria are diverging, and that is rapidly overshadowing the relationship. Israel and the US want to completely remove Iranian influence from Syria, and this is not a Russian interest. Whatever influence it has, Russia may simply not be able to control the growing conflict between Iran and Israel in Syria.”

A practical relationship

Earlier this month, both Israel and a US-led group of allies struck hard at targets in Syria. While the US hit alleged chemical weapons facilities, Israel struck the T4 airbase near Homs, used as a drone center by Iranian forces. The Israeli strike drew a low-key condemnation from Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, but Moscow's real fire-breathing response was aimed at Washington. Russia accuses the US of having no coherent strategy for its Syrian involvement other than to obstruct Russia and Iran’s hopes for victory.

Pavel Golovkin/AP/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow in March 2017. Mr. Netanyahu visited Moscow to talk about security issues stemming from Iran's presence in neighboring Syria.

In response to the strikes, Russia has threatened to arm Syria with S-300 air defense systems, an effective post-Soviet weapon that would vastly improve its capabilities. No decision has been finalized, but Israel warned this week that it would retaliate if S-300 missiles interfered with Israeli objectives.

“We need to find new mechanisms for coordinating with Israel,” says Yevgeny Nikitenko, a national security expert at the Russian Academy of National Economy and State Service (RANEPA). “Israel fears that as Syria becomes stronger, the issue of the [occupied and annexed former Syrian] Golan Heights will become critical again. Israel is our best ally against terrorism, and we need to find a new level of understanding with them.”

The former Soviet Union was allied with several key anti-Israel Arab regimes, championed the cause of the Palestinians, and even broke off diplomatic relations with the Jewish state after its sweeping military victory over Arab neighbors in 1967. Relations were restored in 1991, but it was only after Mr. Putin came to power in 2000 that ties began to warm up significantly.

“One important factor for Putin was the Israeli position about Russia’s war in Chechnya,” says Dmitry Maryasis, an Israel expert with the Institute of Oriental Studies of the RAS. “The West tended to condemn Moscow over Chechnya, but Israel understood us and agreed that there can be no compromises with terrorists. Russian decision-makers really appreciated this support, which was not just on the verbal level, but also took the form of cooperation between intelligence services.”

Russian stabilization and economic growth under Putin also created new economic opportunities. About 10 percent of Israel’s population are Russian-speakers – the largest proportion in any country outside of the former Soviet Union – and thousands of them began returning to Russia to start businesses and take high-end jobs. According to official statistics, about 100,000 Israelis currently live and work in Russia.

Though Russia remained friendly with many Arab countries, and continued to support the Palestinian cause, it has not taken the lead in opposing Israel as the Soviet Union once did.

“Russia has no anti-Israel movement at all, as many European countries do,” says Mr. Maryasis. “The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, which is growing in the West, is nonexistent here. Russian Muslim communities, such as Tatars, have no anti-Israel agenda whatsoever. The tone of the Russian media about Israel has been generally neutral. Israelis, who are very sensitive about this, tend to appreciate that about Russia.”

‘A very dangerous moment’

That could be changing too, as tensions over Syria grow. In an unaccustomed harsh statement, Russia slammed Israel’s killing of dozens of unarmed Palestinian protesters earlier this month in Gaza as an “indiscriminate use of force against the civilian population.” The Israeli press has started to wonder aloud whether the good working relations between Mr. Netanyahu and Putin may be reaching their limit.

Some Russian analysts, like Maryasis, are optimistic that Russia and Israel can work out these differences.

“Israel knows that there is no way to decide the fate of Syria without Russia. There is only one country that has real influence on Israel’s enemy, Iran, and that is Russia,” he says. “So, Israel needs to make Russia understand its concerns; Russia is the country it has to speak to. Netanyahu and Putin have been able to talk without all these political tensions that are wrecking US-Russia relations, there has been a strong dialog between them, and there are good reasons to hope they will find a new language of cooperation in this new situation.”

Others are not so sure.

“The trap Russia has fallen into in Syria is that it is obliged to protect its allies, particularly the Assad regime. But it is getting much more complicated,” says Mr. Shumilin. “This S-300 issue could be a breaking point. No one knows what's going to happen, or what Russia will do. It’s a very dangerous moment.”

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