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Vladimir Putin warns Netanyahu over Syria

Russian President warns Israeli leader against ‘steps that could lead to a new round of confrontation’

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

In the aftermath of the shooting down by Syria of an Israeli F-16 fighter bomber, President Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel had a telephone conversation with each other.

The Kremlin’s summary of the conversation is even by its standards extremely short.

The discussion focused on the actions of the Israeli Air Force, which has carried out missile strikes in Syria.

The President of Russia spoke out in favour of avoiding any steps that could lead to a new round of confrontation, which would be dangerous for everyone in the region.

This pithy report of the conversation between the Russian and Israeli leaders matches the scant information the Russians have provided of the talks between Putin and Netanyahu in January.

However it it is not difficult to understand current Russian policy with respect to the conflict between Syria and Israel, and it puzzles me that there is so much confusion about it.

The first point to make is that Russia has now become the guarantor of the survival of President Assad and of his government.

Constant speculation that the Russians might be prepared to abandon President Assad in order to achieve peace in Syria, or might be prepared to force a loose decentralised structure upon Syria which the Syrian government does not want, is misplaced.

Prior to Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 the Russians had consistently resisted pressure from the US and its allies to agree to the ousting of President Assad.

Russia repeatedly vetoed Resolutions presented to the UN Security Council by the Western Powers which were intended to achieve the aim of ousting President Assad.

After Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015, the Russians resisted further pressure from the US to agree to President Assad’s ouster, whether in return for a junior place in the US’s anti-ISIS coalition, or in return for the promise of joint military operations between Russia and the US against Al-Qaeda.

I discussed the failure of former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt in Moscow in July 2016 to get the Russians to agree to the ouster of President Assad here.  In a follow up article I said this

……the story of the diplomacy of the Syrian conflict has been a continuous repetition of the same happening:  the US pushes the Russians to agree to have President Assad removed.  The US make various offers or threats to the Russians to buy or force their agreement.  The Russians respond that President Assad’s future is a strictly Syrian internal matter, which they will not involve themselves in.  The US walks away, baffled and angry…..

In truth the inability of the US and its Western and Arab allies to accept that Russian opposition to their regime policy in Syria and elsewhere is for real, and that the Russians cannot be bullied or bribed to change it, is one of the oddest things about the whole Syrian conflict.  Despite the fact the Russians have gone repeatedly out of their way to explain their policy, the US and its allies seem incapable of believing that the Russians are really serious about it.  They always seem to think that the Russians are really just playing some cynical game, and that if they are made the right sort of offer, or put under the right sort of pressure, they can be brought round and made to agree to let Assad go.

If the Russians were not prepared to agree to force President Assad’s ouster when the territory controlled by his government had been reduced to a small strip of territory along Syria’s coast, and when Aleppo – Syria’s biggest city – seemed to be about to slip out of President Assad’s control, then they are not going to agree to force President Assad’s ouster now, when they have helped him secure control of all of Syria’s main cities – including Damascus and Aleppo – and when his armies have reached the Iraqi border in Syria’s farthest east.

After having invested so much in President Assad’s survival and in the survival of his government, it is inconceivable that the Russians would abandon him now, and I am sure that no one in any position of authority in Moscow is considering it.

At the same time no one in Moscow wants to see Russia become embroiled in the Syrian-Israeli conflict, which far predates Russia’s intervention in Syria, and which goes back all the way to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.

When following the 1967 Six Days War the Russians did commit themselves wholeheartedly to one side in the Arab-Israeli conflict – backing the Arabs diplomatically, arming the Arabs intensively, sending a strong military force to defend Egypt in 1970 from Israeli air attacks, and breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel – the result for Moscow was a catastrophe.

The USSR’s large Jewish community became alienated, the USSR found that by making an enemy of Israel it had further poisoned its relations with the Western powers at precisely the time when it was seeking detente with them, and the USSR quickly discovered that its Arab ‘allies’ in whom it had invested so much were both ungrateful and treacherous, so that by 1980 the USSR’s entire position in the Middle East had completely collapsed.

The final straw came after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, when volunteers from across the Arab world rushed to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, in a way that they had never shown the slightest indication of wanting to do against Israel on behalf of the Palestinians.

Not surprisingly, the Russians have therefore since the mid-1980s been determined never to become directly involved in any part of the Arab-Israel conflict again.

Thus whilst Russia maintains good relations with the Arab states, and whilst Russia continues to voice support for the Palestinians, Russia has always striven to maintain good relations with Israel as well, and has forged significant economic links with Israel.

Beyond this, given that Russia already has its hands full in Syria, fighting all sorts of Jihadi and proxy forces there on behalf of President Assad and his government, it has no wish or need to complicate this already hugely complicated task further by taking on Israel – the Middle East’s military giant, with nuclear weapons and the Middle East’s strongest air force – on behalf of Syria as well.

Provided therefore Israeli attacks on Syria do not go beyond the routine attacks which the Israelis have been undertaking against Syria for decades, and which long predate Russia’s intervention in Syria, and provided the Israelis take no step which threatens the existence of the Syrian government or interferes in Syrian military operations against the Jihadi groups the Russians are fighting, the Russians will do nothing about them.

However conversely, if Israeli attacks on Syria threaten either the Syrian government or interfere in Syrian military operations against the Jihadi groups the Russians are fighting, then the Russians will respond sharply, as they did in March last year when they summoned the Israeli ambassador for a dressing down at the Foreign Ministry after an Israeli air strike against Syria’s Tiyas air base, which appeared to be intended to interfere in the Syrian army offensive against ISIS.

Right at the start of the Russian intervention in Syria, on 21st September 2015, Russian President Putin had a series of meetings and conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over the course of which Russian policy would have been carefully explained to the Israeli leader, and the ground rules would have been set out.

That the Russians made clear over the course of that meeting that they were not interested in and would not interfere in ‘routine’ Israeli air strikes against Syria is confirmed by the agreement for a ‘deconfliction’ mechanism that the Russian and Israeli leaders agreed during that summit.

Here is how Reuters reported it

Israel and Russia agreed on Monday to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Moscow.  Recent Russian reinforcements for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which regional sources say include warplanes and anti-aircraft systems, worry Israel, whose jets have on occasion bombed the neighboring Arab country to foil suspected handovers of advanced arms to Assad’s Lebanese guerrilla ally Hezbollah.

Briefing Israeli reporters after he met Russian President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu said he had come with the goal of “prevent(ing) misunderstandings between IDF (Israel Defense Force) units and Russian forces” in Syria, where Assad is fighting Islamist-dominated insurgents in a civil war.

Netanyahu added that he and Putin “agreed on a mechanism to prevent such misunderstandings”. He did not elaborate. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

In earlier remarks as he welcomed Netanyahu to the presidential residence of Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, Putin said Russian actions in the Middle East would always be “responsible”.

Underlining the importance of Netanyahu’s one-day visit to Moscow, Israel’s premier took along the chief of its armed forces and the general in charge of Israeli military intelligence.

Putin, who shares Western concern about the spread of Islamic State influence, has pledged to continue military support for Assad, assistance that Russia says is in line with international law. Russia has been focusing forces on Syria’s coast, where Moscow keeps a big Mediterranean naval base.

The United States, which along with its allies has been flying missions against Islamic State insurgents in Syria, has also been holding so-called “deconfliction” talks with Russia.

(bold italics added)

This report of the agreement Putin and Netanyahu reached on 21st September 2015 confirms that the Russians made clear to the Israelis that they had no interest in preventing ‘routine’ Israeli strikes against Syria, and that their intervention in Syria was not intended to prevent such strikes.  Note specifically the words I have highlighted in the Reuters report, which confirm this and which show the nature of the agreement the Russians and the Israelis agreed with each other.

The Russians at the time would also have said the same thing to President Assad and to the Iranian government: Russia was intervening in Syria to save the Syrian government which was being attacked by Jihadi terrorists and which was being threatened with regime change by the US; not to help Syria prosecute its longstanding conflict with Israel.

However the other side of the coin is that just as the Russians will not act to stop ‘routine’ Israeli air strikes against Syria, so they will not act to stop whatever actions the Syrians take to defend themselves from such strikes.

Both ‘routine’ Israeli actions, and Syrian counter-actions, are part of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israel-Syria conflict, in which Russia is not involved.

Certainly the Russians were not involved in the recent Syrian shooting down of the Israeli F-16 and no one concerned – not the Syrians and not the Israelis – is saying that they were.

At the same time, and consistent with their policy, whilst the Russians will not act to stop the Israelis carrying out ‘routine’ air strikes against Syria or the Syrians shooting down Israeli aircraft which take part in such strikes, the Russians will react sharply to any Israeli action that threatens the existence of the Syrian government or which interferes in Syrian military operations against the Jihadis the Russians are fighting, just as they did last March.

That Putin reminded Netanyahu of this over the course of their recent call is confirmed by the following words in the Kremlin summary

The President of Russia spoke out in favour of avoiding any steps that could lead to a new round of confrontation, which would be dangerous for everyone in the region.

In other words Putin told Netanyahu to moderate his reaction to the shooting down of the F-16, and Israel’s relatively mild reaction to the shooting down of the F-16 – the retaliatory air strikes Israel launched after the shoot-down did not go beyond the level of ‘routine’ strikes, and did not threaten Syrian military operations against the Jihadis (which continue unabated) or the existence of the Syrian government – shows that despite his public bluster Netanyahu heeded Putin’s call.

The Russians have almost certainly balanced this warning to Netanyahu with equivalent warnings to Damascus and Tehran, warning them that further escalation should be avoided.

Since it is not in Syria’s or Iran’s interests that Syria – which is still in a state of internal war, with large areas of the country still controlled by the Kurds and by the Syrian government’s Jihadi enemies, and which is currently threatened by the presence of US and Turkish troops on its territory – should find itself in an all-out conflict with Israel, it is a certainty that these Russian warnings are being heeded.

If Russia is loathe to take sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict or in the conflict between Israel and Syria, the events of the last few days shows how the mere fact of its presence in Syria is nonetheless changing the dynamics of the conflict.

As I have recently written, Syria’s success in shooting down an Israeli F-16 provides confirmation that the military balance in the Middle East is shifting.

Something that was beyond Syria’s capabilities until very recently – the shooting down of an Israeli fighter jet in Israeli controlled air space – has now happened.

It is Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict which has brought this about.

Without Russia’s intervention there would be no Syrian military to shoot down Israeli aircraft, and it is Russian training, advice and technical support which has given the Syrian military the ability to shoot down Israeli aircraft.

Shifting the balance of military power in the Middle East was not the intention behind Russia’s intervention in Syria; however it is the product of it.

Similarly, Russia’s warning Israel against taking action in response to the shooting down of the F-16 which might escalate the situation is not a case of Russia taking sides in the longstanding conflict between Israel and Syria; however its effect is to protect Syria from Israeli actions which might have happened in response to the shooting down of the F-16 as part of that conflict, if Russia had not been present in Syria and had not given Israel its warning.

The result is that Syria has successfully shot down an Israeli F-16 and has suffered no significant consequences from it.

Though the Arab-Israeli conflict continues, and though Israel and Syria will continue to take actions against each other, the dynamic of the conflict has changed.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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