Moscow’s game 

Prof. Eyal Zisser

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Israel last week was an indication of the growing ties between Israel and Russia. It was the first time an Russian defense minister had visited Israel, and it showed both sides’ desire to strengthen relations and add a strategic, defense aspect to the existing political, diplomatic, cultural, and trade ties that are flourishing between the two nations.

But as the Russian defense minister was on his way to Israel, another serious incident took place on the northern front. The Syrians fired a missile at an Israeli plane that was making a standard patrol flight over Lebanon, and in response, the IDF attacked and destroyed the battery that fired the missile. The announcements that came from Damascus – including a declaration by the head of Iran’s military who visited the Syrian capital this weekend that Iran and Syria would not allow Israel to keep attacking in Syria – indicate that it’s only a matter of time before the next incident in the north. The Syrians didn’t necessarily ask for Russian permission to fire at the Israeli planes. But we can assume that Moscow is aware of and ready to accept Damascus’ new policy of harsher responses and attempting to challenge Israel every time it acts in Syrian territory. At the same time, the Russians are also aware of and willing to accept Israel’s active policy in Syria. After all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has testified more than once that Russian President Vladimir Putin has lent a sympathetic ear to his explanations about why Israel must act against an Iranian presence in Syria and against missile shipments from Iran to Hezbollah. Putin didn’t confront Netanyahu over the issue, and all the Russians asked of Israel was to make sure that the IDF was in coordination with the Red Army to prevent the armies from clashing in Syrian space. Russia might be aware of its limited influence on both sides, and therefore prefers to allow its two friends, Israel and Syria, to keep fighting by not positioning itself between them. That also holds true for Iran, an important partner (if not an intimate friend) of Russia in the Middle East whose services Russia still needs – like it needs the services of Hezbollah – to ensure Syrian President Bashar Assad’s final victory in the Syrian war. It’s also possible that the Russians, like the Americans, are focused on their immediate goal. Washington wants to wipe out the Islamic State, whereas Moscow wants Assad’s victory. So the Russians have no interest or free time to deal with the question of “the day after.” But it’s also possible that the blows being traded between Israel and Syria are convenient for the Russians since the brawling and the fear of escalation are pushing both Jerusalem and Damascus into Russia’s arms and are making Putin the grown-up, a job the Americans forfeited long ago. The problem is that the limited, precise exchange of hits could develop into a multidimensional conflict that no one wants but both sides could find themselves in due to a miscalculation or if they raise the stakes of their responses (like the Syrians did last week, when they shot at an Israeli plane on a regular patrol mission that hadn’t even struck in Syria). The Iranian element in the equation could only make things more complicated. The U.S. is Israel’s most important ally, especially when it comes to unfettered diplomatic support and preserving Israel’s military and technological superiority over its enemies. But it appears that when it comes to finding a formula that will ensure quiet along the northern border, Moscow is now the address. We can only hope that the Russians won’t change their policy of keeping their hands to themselves in light of the fight that has broken out between the neighborhood kids to a more active policy of drawing red lines – for the Syrians and the Iranians, but primarily for Israel, which could close the window of opportunity that the Syrian war opened for the IDF to operate in Syria, even carrying out strikes to reduce future threats against Israel.

Source: Moscow’s game – Israel Hayom

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