(September 21, 2018 / JNS) One of Israel’s most important strategic assets was severely rattled earlier this week.
Nearly three years after its founding, the Israeli-Russian deconfliction channel—an operational hotline set up to prevent either side from making a lethal mistake while operating in Syrian airspace—sustained a serious blow in the form of the downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane by Syrian fire off the coast of Latakia. The incident, in which all 15 Russian crew members were killed, took place on the heels of an Israeli airstrike on Iranian assets there.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found this incident especially troubling. The military coordination mechanism is something he spared no effort to establish, and the downing of the Russian plane has proven a strenuous test for it, prompting him to burn the midnight oil in an effort to salvage it.
In a world of absolute truths, Israel cannot be held responsible for the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. In a hypocrisy-free global arena, it would be up to Damascus to send apologetic delegates to Moscow to explain to the Russians why a plane making a scheduled landing was shot down, and it would be up to Syrian Air Force Commander Gen. Issam Hallaq—not Israeli Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin—to appease the Russians.
Israel, however, is far too familiar with just how relative truth is in international politics. In a world where Russia is a global power and President Vladimir Putin is a key player, facts take a back seat to interests.
For this reason, Syrian President Bashar Assad and his troops—pathetic and foolish as they may be—will not be made to pay a price for the tragedy they caused.
It is this world of power players and hypocritical politics through which Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces must navigate.
Netanyahu, who understood quicker than most the implications of the Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war, was wise enough to come up with the concept of the deconfliction channel and as time went by, he was also wise enough to forge a unique relationship with Putin that, from a security standpoint, has proven exceptionally beneficial for Israel.
Many Israeli pundits mocked the prime minister’s frequent trips to the Kremlin and were quick to criticize the deconfliction channel, but now, when imminent danger has reared its head, they must acknowledge his accomplishments, which he is now trying to salvage.
This effort does not pit tiny Israel against powerful Russia, but positions the two as almost equal. Israel and Russia have maintained a pretty simple (and secret) deal: Israel will not harm one hair on Assad’s head, as he is Putin’s ally; in exchange, Putin will turn a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian assets in Syria.
Monday’s incident is testing this deal, and the trouble is tha Israel is meeting this challenge at a time when the threat—theoretical as it may be—of harming Assad is far less relevant, as the end to the Syrian civil war is almost here.
As things stand, when even the international community has come to terms with the fact that Assad will remain in power, Israel would find harming him difficult to justify. Moreover, Israel may find that its hands are getting increasingly tied with respect to its operations in Syria.
One can assume this is the complex dilemma Netanyahu is now trying to resolve, but only time will tell what solution he can devise.