Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in order to set up a deconfliction and communication system to prevent any accidental clashes between the Russian and Israeli forces present in the region. This comes at a time when Moscow continues to send troops to its growing base on Latakiya and Tartus. According to latest reports, intelligence spurces, independent news outlets and satellite images, there are more than 28 Russian air force planes in Latakia now, up from a mere four even a few days back. American media also reported, quoting unnamed intelligence officials, that Russian drones are now currently operating as a part of pre-sortie recon missions.
In that context, the most high profile visit of Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu in Russia happened. Israeli PM has previously visited Russia in 2013, to prevent the sell of Russian S 300s to Iranian forces. That was a different time, and now the current visit comes at a drastically changed security situation. Back in 2003, Sysian regime under Assad was almost falling, as the moderate rebels were scoring lightning victories. ISIS was not a force like it is now. And the negotiations with Iran was just starting.
Now, the Assad regime has proven to be much more enduring, and strong than previously calculated by security and intelligence analysts. Although the forces of Assad has been decimated in this war of attrition, he hold on to his Alawite heartland in the west coastline of the rump state of Syria that he rules now, as the post- colonial borders are obsolete between Syria and Iraq. In those circumstances, Russia intervened rapidly in shocking speed that stunned almost every player present in the field. Currently over 500 Russian marines are present in Syria alongside, fighter jet squadrons, drones, T 90 tanks and massive artillery support.
To underscore the seriousness of the situation, Netanyahu was accompanied on his current visit by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi. Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin also joined the trip to serve as an interpreter. As per Netanyahu’s press briefings, Russian President Putin was informed that Israel considers two important objectives, when it might be forced to act. The two situations are Hezbollah getting any modern Russian weapons, or when there is an immediate threat to Israeli lives. Apparently President Putin agreed to the two situations.
Russia and Israel therefore are setting up joint communication centers, and hotlines between the two militaries in the country. This is a standard process of deconfliction when two militaries act in a region where the area of operation tend to overlap. To be fair, Russia’s area of operations, should it begin, will be focused on the North and Eastern part of Syria, and Israel’s areas of intervention has always been the South of Syria. For all practical purposes Israel and Russia will not be facing each other even by accident in the Syrian warzone.
So why is Israel suddenly genuflecting to Russia, and what does it say of the situation? First of all, Israel is not genuflecting, and it is a prudent calculation for the Israelis to talk to the Russians. Israel is facing a potentially hostile superpower right next to her borders the first time since the Yom Kippur War. It is only natural being the smaller of the two militaries it will try to start a communication channel with the bigger power. The burden of de-escalation is always more on the smaller power in a conflict zone. Having said that, it would be a mistake to imagine Israel and Russia are adversaries. Even though they have lot of areas where the interests of the two countries are not aligned, but they also have a surprisingly good understanding of each other’s foreign policy and generally abide by. Analysts will remember Israel decided to stop selling Georgia weapons, during 2008 war, and Russia deciding to post-pone selling of S 300 until after the conclusion of the Nuclear negotiations. Infact until recently, even with the Russian buildup in Syria increasing, Israel is selling Drones to Russia to spy on Ukraine border.
Another important thing to note is that Israeli PM Netanyahu shares a terrible working relationship with a professorial US President Obama, and would much rather prefer working with Putin, a military-intelligence man, who is quick to decide and can bypass his cabinet. It is always easier to do business with a pragmatic, authoritarian-ish leader, as they both will understand each other and their interests well. Finally, there is a consensus, in both US intelligence and political community and Israel, that maybe the preservation of Assad is a good thing against ISIS. Also, US and Israel administrations would not be able to say in public as a rhetoric, but in private would be more than happy to delegate the security of Syria to Russia. This comes from a Middle east war fatigue and a guilt of wrecking Libya after the overthrow of Gaddafi, which in hindsight, is the main cause of the refugee crisis that is destroying the EU. It is still unclear as to how much Russia is willing to actively participate in cleaning Syrian mess, but what is clear is that Russia is back as a major player, and is getting recognition for it in Middle east. Power vacuum doesn’t stay for long.