August 4, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden Administration Should Stand With Israel Against Russia in Syria

August 4, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden Administration Should Stand With Israel Against Russia in Syria

In an unusual move, Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit, deputy head of Russia’s Reconciliation Center for Syria, last month claimed that Syrian regime forces used Russian-made air defense systems to counter several Israeli airstrikes. Moscow may be signaling its desire to curtail Israel’s operations in Syria.

From July 19 to 25, Israel conducted three airstrikes targeting Iranian or Hezbollah military sites in Syria, at least some of them located near Syrian regime facilities. After each mission, Kulit issued a statement claiming that Syrian forces using the Russian-made Buk-M2 medium-range air defense system — and, in one instance, the Pantsir-S point-defense system — destroyed most or all incoming Israeli missiles. Independent media reports, however, indicate Israel’s operations were successful.

Those operations are part of an ongoing Israeli campaign to prevent Tehran from transforming Syria into a military front against Israel and transferring game-changing precision-guided munition capabilities to Hezbollah. While Russia and Iran both back the Bashar al-Assad regime, they compete for influence within Syria, and Moscow does not support Tehran’s anti-Israel efforts. After intervening in Syria in 2015, Russia quietly acquiesced to Israel’s operations — but stressed they must not threaten Russian or Assad regime assets.

Since 2018, however, Israel has intensified its campaign, straining its understanding and deconfliction mechanism with Russia. Tensions peaked in 2018 when Syrian forces accidentally downed a Russian Ilyushin-20 while trying to attack Israeli aircraft. Nevertheless, Israel has only expanded its campaign’s pace and scope, striking deeper into Syria and targeting Iranian facilities interspersed among Syrian military sites. Moscow has pushed Israel to curtail its operations, to no avail.

While Russian media frequently report Israeli airstrikes, Russia’s military rarely does, typically doing so only when particularly concerned. As one senior Israeli security official suggested, Moscow may have intended Kulit’s unprecedented attribution of three successive Israeli strikes as a message signaling new “rules of the game” to limit Israel’s operations.

On May 31, Russia’s Defense Ministry for the first time published photos showing Syrian forces training on Russian-made Buk-M2E and S-75 air defense systems. This may indicate additional Russian support or simply Moscow’s desire to signal increased Syrian readiness. A Russian outlet affiliated with Russia’s military reported similar exercises on July 26.

On July 24, an unconfirmed Asharq Al-Awsat report cited a “well-informed Russian source” as saying Moscow’s “patience” with Israel has “run out.” Pointing to Syria’s purportedly successful recent intercepts, the source said Russia has shifted its approach to Israeli operations, bolstering Syria’s air defenses and having Russian advisors assist Syrian forces. The source claimed Moscow’s shift stems directly from Biden administration signals indicating displeasure with Israel’s operations, suggesting Moscow would not face stiff U.S. opposition if Russia seeks to curtail them.

Greater Russian involvement in Syrian air defense could increase the risk of miscalculation and escalation. Citing unnamed Israeli sources, Breaking Defense reported Israel plans to minimize risks to Israeli warplanes by relying mostly on long-range standoff weapons.

On July 28, Israel Hayom reported that a senior official close to Russia’s Defense Ministry said that as Israel prepared to swear in a new government in mid-June, Moscow decided to try to curtail Israel’s operations and may soon propose new rules for Israel. Pro-Assad Lebanese outlets claimed a senior Russian official said Russian-Israeli “coordination” had halted with the recent departure of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who enjoyed a good working relationship with his Russian counterpart.

These reports should be treated with caution. It is unclear whether Syria’s air defense posture or Russian involvement therein have actually changed. Likewise, Jerusalem is reportedly unaware of any U.S. discomfort with Israel’s operations, and Israeli sources say the Russian-Israeli deconfliction mechanism remains intact. The reports citing Russian sources may reflect Russian efforts to undermine Israeli confidence.

Still, the Biden administration should eliminate any doubt by providing full diplomatic and intelligence support for Israel’s campaign, which serves both Israeli and U.S. interests. The administration should also affirm its support when Israel’s new prime minister visits Washington this month.

John Hardie is research manager and a Russia research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP), Israel Program, and Iran Program. For more analysis from the authors, CMPP, and the Israel and Iran programs, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Military and Political Power Russia Syria