On June 7, 2016, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Russia’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. This bilateral summit was Netanyahu’s third trip to Russia since the fall. After a lengthy discussion on the ongoing Syrian conflict, Putin reiterated Russia’s intention to bolster its cooperation with Israel against the threat posed by Islamic terrorism in Syria.
Despite the recent improvement in relations with Russia, Netanyahu recently reiterated that the Israel-United States alliance remains the “cornerstone” of Israeli foreign policy. But expanded Israeli coordination with Russia over Syria reveals that Netanyahu wants to diversify Israel’s range of strategic partners to guarantee its security. The three main factors that explain Israel’s strengthened cooperation with Russia over Syria will be outlined below:
1) Netanyahu Believes Russia can Moderate the Threat Posed to Israel by Assad and his Allies
On the surface, Israel’s enhanced cooperation with Russia in Syria defies conventional logic. Russia is a close ally of Bashar Al-Assad’s Baathist regime, which does not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. Assad’s principal allies and Russia’s main military partners in Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, also have unambiguously anti-Israeli foreign policy identities.
Despite this hostile network of alliances, Israel’s cooperation with Russia has continued to grow. Netanyahu believes that a closer relationship with Russia will cause Putin to act as a mediator between Israel and its anti-Israeli allies. This mediation role would moderate Iranian and Hezbollah foreign policies considerably and neutralize any security threat they might pose to Israel.
The 1967 and 1973 wars were ignited by surprise attacks from Arab states on Israel. Even though Israel’s military capabilities have grown considerably in recent decades, these wars still have powerful symbolic resonance in shaping Israeli defense policy. Therefore, Israel’s desire to prevent a repeat invasion on its northern border has heightened the appeal of Russian mediation.
As the United States and European Union have become increasingly critical of Israeli settlement constructions in the West Bank and signed a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, right-wing policymakers in Netanyahu’s governing Likud coalition have become circumspect about the sincerity of Western security guarantees. Therefore, Israel has looked towards Russia as a security partner.
Russia has responded positively to pro-Moscow sentiments in Netanyahu’s administration. Putin has capitalized on Israel’s strained relationship with the Obama administration to maximize Russian leverage in Syria. In the lead-up to the September 2015 Russian military intervention in Syria, Putin worked assiduously to assuage Israeli security concerns about Moscow’s military cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah.
In return, Israel agreed not to intervene militarily in Syria and to allow Russian jets to fly over Israeli air space, without risk of a Turkey-style shoot-down crisis. By offering Netanyahu credible security guarantees, Russia is able to carry out its military campaign in Syria, with little risk of Israeli retaliation that could jeopardize Putin’s pro-Assad objectives.
2) Israel and Russia Both Accept the Need for Political Stability in Syria
Although Netanyahu has not verbally expressed support for Assad, recent foreign policy shifts demonstrate that Israel is fearful of the security implications of a Sunni revolutionary takeover in Syria. These sentiments, voiced by prominent Israeli officials, like Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff during the 2006 Lebanon War Dan Halutz, mirror Russian justifications for intervention in Syria.
Israel’s transition towards greater convergence with Russia on the Syrian conflict has been a gradual process rather than a sudden policy shift. Initially, Israeli policymakers like Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak viewed Assad’s overthrow to be imminent and distanced themselves from the Baathist regime to avoid open conflict with a post-Assad Syria.
Israel also provided Syrian rebels military supplies for specific purposes that aligned with Jerusalem’s interests. Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon stated last year that Israel aided moderate Syrian rebels to ensure that Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State (ISIS) fighters did not encroach on Israel’s shared border with Syria and that the Druze minority was protected from sectarian violence.
These Israeli policies remained relatively consistent in the first four years of the Syrian conflict. But Assad’s unexpected staying power and ISIS’s growing presence have caused Netanyahu to shift his approach in Syria to a strategy that aligns more closely with Russia’s.
Although Israel’s self-defense imperatives have triggered military actions that contravene Russian interests like the strikes on Hezbollah targets earlier this year, Israel and Russia have increased their security policy coordination in Syria to prevent open confrontation.
In particular, the IDF has notified Moscow on impending strikes and has agreed to demarcation lines with Russia on where to intervene. This cooperation demonstrates that Israel is beginning to operate outside the anti-Assad, anti-Russian consensus of Western powers and the majority of the Arab League.
Israel’s tacit support for stability in Syria is the latest example of Jerusalem’s normative allegiance with Russia on national sovereignty issues and military interventions. To curry Putin’s favor, Israel refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence, scaled back military cooperation with Georgia following the Russian intervention in South Ossetia in 2008, and did not condemn the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
In exchange, Putin has rewarded Israel with deepened economic and security linkages at a time when Western powers are pressuring Jerusalem on its occupation of the Palestinian territories and Western civil society organizations are lobbying to boycott Israeli goods. Bonding with Russia on normative and international legal grounds benefits Israel’s strategic interests greatly. Therefore, Israel’s softening opposition to Russia’s pro-Assad position in Syria is the latest manifestation of a broader foreign policy trend.
3) Netanyahu Wants Russia to Maintain a Limited Military Presence in Syria for as Long as Possible
While many Israeli policymakers were initially unsure whether a Russian military intervention in Syria would be constructive in resolving the conflict, improved Israel-Russia bilateral relations have caused these same officials to be circumspect about the potential negative security implications of a Russian withdrawal. Putin’s March 14 announcement of a partial Russian military drawdown from Syria surprised the Israeli political establishment, and increased fears of Iranian belligerence.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s calls for dialogue with Moscow on containing the Iranian threat, which he views to be equivalent in magnitude to ISIS, demonstrate these concerns. They also reveal that Israel regards Russian military involvement in Syria to be vital for regional security, as Moscow’s presence thwarts Iran from sponsoring terrorism on Russia’s southern border.
In response to these appeals, Kremlin officials have informed Chief of the Israeli General Staff Gadi Eisenkot that Russia will maintain two naval bases in Syria to guarantee against a pernicious Iranian intervention. Russia has also emphasized that its withdrawal from Syria will be a gradual process, rather than a sudden departure.
These assurances align with Moscow’s overarching belief that overly swift withdrawals from Middle East conflict zones like the Obama administration’s abandonment of Libya after Gaddafi’s fall breed instability and empower Islamic extremism.
On the flip side, Israeli military analysts believe an extensive Russian military presence in Syria empowers Assad and unduly bolsters his position in peace negotiations, like the Geneva talks. Therefore, Israel’s interests are maximized by a limited, stabilizing Russian military presence.
In short, Israel’s growing security cooperation with Russia in Syria is motivated by a common desire to stabilize the conflict, combat Islamic extremism, and pre-empt belligerence from Iran and its proxies. As relations between Israel and the West have deteriorated over disagreements on the status of the Palestinian territories, Netanyahu is gradually shifting the focus of Jerusalem’s diplomatic efforts towards Russia to bring to fruition Israel’s goals for the wider region.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, The Diplomat and Kyiv Post amongst others. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.