Israel and Russia: Friends or foes in Syria?

Putin and Netanyahu have built a relationship based on mutual understanding if not agreement. How does Syria fit in? 

By: Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

Israel has been frequently criticized for its military intervention in Syria. Those opposing it claim that this policy increasingly puts Jerusalem on a collision course with Russia. However, critics ignore the dangers of not enforcing Israel’s red lines in Syria.

Iran’s genocidal regime demands Israel’s destruction and supports terrorist organizations Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. A further Iranian entrenchment in Syria would constitute a grave and unacceptable threat to the Jewish state’s national security. It was recently revealed that the Iranian drone that was neutralized by the Israeli Air force after violating Israeli airspace two months ago was equipped with explosives.

While Russia is a superpower, Moscow has no interest in an escalation with Jerusalem. President Vladimir Putin is fully aware of Israel’s military capabilities and vital security needs. Like Iran, Russia’s presence in Syria is driven by imperial ambitions. However, unlike Iran, Russia’s imperial ambitions do not constitute a direct threat to Israel. Moscow’s main interest in Syria is to maintain its naval military base in the Syrian port Tartus. It is the Russian Navy’s only base in the Mediterranean and enables replenishment for Russian ships without heading to Russian Black Sea ports through volatile Turkish straits.

Israel can live with a Russian presence in Syria, but not with a menacing Iran on its doorstep. Russia has deployed its relatively limited military assets in Syria to defend the Assad regime, which Moscow sees as an insurance policy against Islamists threatening Russia’s Mediterranean strategic assets.

Russia has no interest in a military confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria. Moscow’s disapproval of Israel’s alleged air strike on an Iranian military base in Syria is Moscow’s way of trying to cool down the tension on the ground by offering face-saving support to its formal Iranian ally. Unlike Israel, Iran is an imperial competitor to Russia in Syria. Jerusalem and Moscow therefore have a shared interest in preventing Iran from becoming the dominant power in Syria.

In recent years, Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have built a relationship based on mutual understanding if not agreement. Like Israel’s Middle Eastern enemies, Russia only respects military power and countries willing to defend their red lines. Russia’s and Israel’s national interests will never converge in Syria or elsewhere. However, Russia understands that defending Moscow’s assets in Syria requires taking Israel’s vital security interests into consideration.