EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The defeat of ISIS, the emergence of Russia as the patron of the Assad regime, and President Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of US forces from Syria have affected the policies and alliances of Israel, Iran, the US, and Russia with respect to that country, potentially leading to a wide-scale conflagration. To reduce the risk of war, Israel needs to consolidate its security understanding with Russia over southern Syria.
Since the 1990s, Israel and Russia have enjoyed an increasingly warm relationship. Russian President Vladimir Putin is reputed to have said, “There is a little piece of Russia in Israel.” However, Moscow’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war and the crushing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have changed the dynamics of the Israel-Russia relationship.
Israel is concerned about Iran’s deepening strategic military presence in Syria, which involves the building of military bases and the provisioning of Hezbollah with precision missiles. Over the past two years, and especially since the defeat of ISIS, Israel has led a systematic air campaign against Iranian assets in Syria that Russia, despite its control of the Syrian airspace, has done little to stop. Yet as Jerusalem began to align its military strategy in Syria with that of the US, Moscow apparently signaled its discontent. In February 2018, an Iranian drone penetrated the Israeli airspace. As expected, Israel retaliated by downing the drone and carrying out air strikes across Syria and against the Iranian drone’s point of origin. For the first time since 1982, an Israeli jet was shot down by Syrian missiles. Analysts have questioned whether Syria could have anticipated and fired at the Israeli jets had it not been for Russian planning.