Last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least six Syrian regime personnel and allies had been killed on Saturday in an Israeli Air Force (IAF) strike in Syria.
The report, announced via Twitter, stated that the casualties included those “of Syrian and non-Syrian nationalities,” but did not elaborate.
The IDF Spokesman’s office confirmed that the military had launched a large-scale attack against Syrian aerial defense systems and Iranian targets in Syria. “Twelve targets, including three aerial defense batteries” consisting of Syrian SA-5 and SA-17 surface-to-air missile batteries and “four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria were attacked.”
The strike was in response to an infiltration into Israel by an Iranian drone earlier that day. The drone originated from an airfield near Palmyra, Syria, and was successfully intercepted and destroyed by an IDF Apache helicopter.
During Saturday’s IAF attacks, one Israeli F-16 was shot down after being hit by a Syrian surface-to-air missile. According to reports, Syrians fired 10 missiles at one of the fighter planes participating in the operation, and one was able to lock on to its target. The two pilots were able to eject from the craft before it was hit. Both landed in Israeli territory, but were injured upon impact.
The incident marks the first time an Israeli fighter jet has been shot down in over 30 years, the last occurrence having taken place in 1982 during the first Lebanon War. Despite the loss of the F-16, however, the operation was certainly an overall win for Israel. The IAF conducted another round of strikes on the same area immediately following the shoot-down, and overall managed to destroy half of all Syrian air defenses according to reports.
Israeli officials have been increasingly alluding to more intervention in Syria, as Iran continues to collude with the Assad regime to build military capabilities in the country. The Homs Governorate airbase, from which the recently intercepted Iranian drone was launched, is one example of the fruits of this co-op. For the past several months, the base has been operating as a forward outpost of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
These events represent a serious escalation in the already tense area of Israel’s northern border. The important thing to consider in light of this steadily intensifying situation is the implications it will have for Israel’s partnerships in the region.
Dealing with American interests will be less complicated. The administration has already given Israel its support regarding the incident. The White House released a statement placing the blame for the violence squarely on Iran and Syria, while supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from “militia forces in southern Syria.”
What will be a more difficult feat for Israel, moving forward, will be dealing with Russia.
The Russian Federation is quite invested in the area to Israel’s north. A series of economic and diplomatic considerations led Russia to lend its support to the Assad regime in the ongoing civil war. Russian military intervention in Syria began in 2015, and the country still maintains substantial military deployments in the country.
A brief perusal of the recent history of Israeli-Russian cooperation shows that Israel certainly has an interest in staying on Russia’s good side. Jerusalem has been gradually developing a working security partnership with Moscow over the past decade, ironically triggered — at least in part — by the souring of relations between Israel and the U.S. during the Obama era. One of the first milestones came in 2010 when Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak signed a joint “security partnership.”
The agreement established security cooperation between the two nations to help them fight common threats, such as Islamist terrorism. At the signing in Moscow, Minister Serdyukov commented that the views of both countries “on many modern challenges are close or coincide.” These “coinciding views” became the impetus for a series of co-ops in recent years, including joint military development and supply ventures internationally, and the sale of hi-tech aerial drones to the Russian military.
This cooperation hit a high point in 2014, when Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin opened a secure channel of communication to coordinate military operations in the region. According to experts, the secure hotline, proposed by the country’s Foreign Ministry, was designed to let the two countries to converse on sensitive issues “without any intervention” from other international players.
Within the context of this growing relationship, the countries have had to carefully coordinate at important junctions during the conflict to Israel’s north. Russia has long given Israel advance warning its operations in the Syira. In fact, when Russia first started to intervene in the civil war in September of 2015, Netanyahu and his Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen Gadi Eisenkott flew to Moscow to meet with Putin and other Kremlin officials to map out a plan for keeping their respective governments aware of each other’s military activities in Syria. Since then, the two nations have stayed on point in keeping the other informed and allowing their respective forces to operate unabated.
Since the IAF strikes of last weekend, Israeli officials have been increasingly calling for ramping up strikes against regime targets in Syria. Supposing an increase in Israeli operations in Syria is coming, the question is: Will Russia start putting up opposition? The Kremlin has put up redlines before against Israeli interests in the region, at least on the diplomatic end. Last September, for instance, Russia threatened to use its veto power to block a United Nations resolution to renew the mandate of peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon if the text of the document targeted the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Russia’s ally in the civil war.
In this instance, however, its seems very likely that Russia will not hinder Israeli efforts to defend itself. The reason for this lies in the simple fact that Israel’s operations, at root, are not aimed at Russian interests in the country. While the regime’s assets may, in fact, be hit during these operations — as they were in last week’s airstrike — Israel’s goal is not to bring down Assad, but rather to prevent Iran from capitalizing on its position in Syria to harass the Jewish State. Russia can live with this, and almost certainly does not want to risk conflict with Israel over the issue.
There is no doubt that more Israeli strikes will mean more risk for Russian forces in Syria. Lack of coordination has led to some close calls in the past. In March, for example, Moscow summoned Israel’s ambassador to Russia, Gary Koren, to protest a reported Israeli strike that nearly hit Russian troops stationed in the area. However, any increased need to coordinate will likely strengthen Israeli-Russian cooperation, not hinder it — the diplomatic tussle that began with Koren’s summons being a case in point. Two weeks after the incident, Netanyahu reached out to Russia, reportedly receiving assurance from Putin himself that the two countries would increase coordination in regards to their respective interests in Syria.
Currently, the future on Israel’s northern front does not look promising. On Tuesday, Syria’s Assistant Foreign Minister, Ayman Sussan, threatened that “more surprises” await the Israelis. In response, top Israeli officials have expressed resolve to continue pushing forward with their operations in the country. While any increased violence in Syria is something Moscow can do without, Israel has made clear that it will not be backing down any time soon. Russia has until now chosen cooperation over conflict, and will in all likelihood continue to do the same.