December 1, 2015 | Policy Brief

Israel Holds Firm to Red Lines in Syria Despite Russian Presence

December 1, 2015 | Policy Brief

Israel Holds Firm to Red Lines in Syria Despite Russian Presence

Israel reportedly carried out four airstrikes in Syria’s Qalamoun Mountains near the Lebanese border last week, killing eight Hezbollah fighters and five Syrian soldiers, and wounding dozens. The airstrikes, which came two months after Russia launched its aerial campaign in Syria, demonstrate that Moscow’s presence has not hindered the Jewish state’s ability to strike at will in its northern neighbor. On the contrary, the strikes show that the open channels of communication between Russia and Israel, should they be maintained, can allow both countries to pursue their dissonant interests in Syria without coming into conflict.

In January 2013, Israel began waging a clandestine, low-intensity warlargely from the air – to enforce its “red lineon Hezbollah exploiting the Syrian war to obtain “game-changing” weapons that would dramatically shift the balance of power in Israel’s next war with the group. The Qalamoun Mountains have become a common location for Israeli strikes because they serve as a hub for the transfer of Iranian weapons to the organization. For its part, Hezbollah has described any strike against its Syrian operations as an attack against the entire “Axis of Resistance” alliance that it shares with Iran and the Assad regime in Damascus.

Russia’s intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime initially complicated matters for Israel. Moscow and Jerusalem have opposing interests in the country – the former is an ally of the Iranian axis, while the latter considers Iran and its proxies to be the most dangerous and immediate threat on its borders. With Russia in Syria, Israel suddenly incurred the risk of accidentally killing Russian personnel while striking Hezbollah in Syria, potentially setting off an international incident. Israel was also fearful that the Russian presence – recently buttressed with the deployment of S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries – would imperil its pilots entrusted to interdict weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

Israel quickly took preemptive action. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot traveled to meet with their counterparts in Moscow in September. There, they conveyed Israel’s red lines on Hezbollah’s weapons transfers and established an unspecified joint coordination mechanism to avoid inadvertent clashes.

That mechanism has already paid off. Less than a week after Turkey shot down a Russian plane on the Syrian border, Israel’s defense minister revealed that a similar conflict between Moscow and Jerusalem had been prevented, despite the fact that Russia had several times crossed into Israeli airspace. Meanwhile, Israel’s strikes on Hezbollah targets have continued apace.

Meeting yesterday on the sidelines of a conference in Paris, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the deconfliction mechanism, and Israeli and Russian military officers were scheduled to meet today to discuss ways to deepen cooperation.

The Kremlin has its hands full with military operations from Ukraine to Syria – and now a diplomatic tit-for-tat with Turkey. Putin has no intention of sparking similar tension with Israel. To that end, it appears that the Moscow has agreed to accept Israel’s red lines in Syria – for now.

David Daoud is an Arabic-language research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Hezbollah Israel Russia Syria