One of Israel’s most complicated and worrisome strategic dilemmas has for some time now been managing its relationship with Russia while operating in Syria. Despite the immense challenges in repeatedly striking Iranian targets – both Iranian military bases and Iranian weapons convoys transiting through Syria bound for Hizballah in Lebanon – while avoiding a clash with Iran’s Russian patron, Israel has been remarkably successful in maintaining this critical balancing act. This week, however, demonstrated that the fundamental equation in which Israel acts and Russia looks the other way so long as its own assets are left alone has changed. Despite appearances, the independent variable here does not have to do with Israel or Russia, but with the U.S., and Israel will have to quickly recognize that this does not necessarily constrain what it wants to accomplish but that it does require an even more sensitive eye.
In the early hours of Monday morning, Israel struck the T-4 airbase in Syria with eight cruise missiles fired from Israeli F-15s, killing fourteen people including seven Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers. The target and the timing are both notable for separate reasons. First, this is the same base that Israel hit in February following an Iranian drone’s penetration of Israeli airspace, and it houses not only the Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle headquarters in Syria but Russian and Syrian troops as well. Given its importance to Iran’s military objectives in Syria, it is apparent that the base is at the top of Israel’s target list. Second, the timing of Israel’s strike this week came on the heels of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta and rampant anticipation that an American response was imminently forthcoming. It is for this reason that when the base was hit by a series of missiles, there was immediate speculation that the operation was an American one.
But most notable was the unprecedented Russian response. Following the strike and the questions over its provenance, Israel maintained its customary silence, but was quickly fingered first by Russia and then by the U.S. as the party responsible. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned the military action, and then summoned Israel’s ambassador to the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday. Given that no Russians were injured in the strike – there were in fact reports that Russian troops had evacuated the base ahead of time, possibly because of an Israeli warning and possibly out of an abundance of caution in expectation of an American response to the chemical weapons attack – Russia’s reaction was strange. After all, Israel has flown hundreds of sorties in Syria to take out Iranian targets without any conflict with Russia, and in February attacked this very same base. Israel’s actions here were not new, but the Russian response was.
The key to understanding what is going does not lie in the Israel-Russia relationship, but in the déjà vu Cold War dynamic that has engulfed Israeli actions in Syria. In a callback to the 1970s, Israel is again navigating between two outside superpowers who are working to shape the Middle East, and Russia’s response to Israel is more about the U.S. than it is about anything that Israel is doing. It was revealing that Lavrov’s statement calling the missile strike a “dangerous development” did not actually call out Israel, despite Russia having publicly identified Israel as the perpetrator, but instead warned the U.S. and its military coalition partners. The existing dynamic in which Russia tolerates Israeli actions in Syria targeting Iranian assets does not appear to have changed; what Russia seems unwilling to tolerate is Israel acting as an American proxy in order to establish U.S. influence in Syria. The Israeli strike and the Russian response came only a few days after a Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit, in which the three countries discussed joint plans to end the Syrian civil war in a mutually acceptable way while cutting the U.S. out of any influence in the process. For a variety of reasons, none of the three want to see the U.S. maintain any foothold in Syria – Russia because it wants to carve out its own sphere of influence in the Middle East while diminishing American power in the region, Iran because it views the U.S. as a hostile adversary working with the Sunni states to contain its regional hegemonic ambitions, and Turkey because it feels betrayed by American support for Syrian Kurdish groups aligned with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) nemesis. Russia’s initial fear may have been that Israel was acting on behalf of the U.S. to punish Assad for his chlorine and sarin gas attack, and outing Israel and warning the U.S. was about Russia establishing its own red line with regard to the American, rather than Israeli, actions in Syria.
The good news for Israel is that nothing that has transpired over the past week should actually limit its objectives in Syria, which are not to diminish Russian influence in favor of American influence or to respond to the Assad regime’s atrocities against its own people. Israel’s concerns in Syria remain limiting Iran’s permanent foothold in the country and preventing the transfer of advanced weapons to Hizballah, and nothing that Russia has said or done indicate that the game in this regard has changed. But the overall dynamic has shifted given the prospect of greater American military involvement in response to Assad’s attack, notwithstanding President Trump’s predilection toward pulling out of Syria altogether, and Russia’s hawkish attitude toward limiting the U.S. footprint. During the phone call yesterday between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president reportedly stressed his desire for Israel to respect Syrian sovereignty and not to destabilize the Syrian government, which should be read as Putin warning Israel to stay in its lane and not widen its lens to include altering the internal balance of power between Assad and the opposition, which the U.S. seems to be considering. There has long been a question about Israel treading the fine line between Russia and Iran in Syria, but there is now the added complication of treading the line between Russia and the U.S. as well, and in a strategic environment where the U.S. has been unwilling to back Israeli objectives. Israel must be even more careful going forward than it already has been to keep its narrow focus on Iranian actions that only directly impact Israel, and to go no further. To do otherwise will upset the delicate balance Israel has established with Russia, and lead to Russian suspicions that Israel is inserting itself into the larger proxy war taking place between Russia and the U.S.