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Are Israel's relations with Russia at risk?

Wesley Dockery
September 19, 2018

The downing of a Russian plane during an Israeli air raid on Syria has caused tension between Tel Aviv and Moscow. Experts say the two countries will do everything possible to prevent another such incident.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin share a close relationshipImage: Reuters/Y. Kadobniv

Russia and Israel are currently looking to strengthen cooperation in Syrian airspace after a tragic incident on Monday, when Syrian missile defense systems shot down a Russian plane, killing 15 Russian personnel on board. The event happened during a succession of Israeli airstrikes targeting alleged Iran-affiliated military installations in Syria.

On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry accused the Israelis of using the Russian aircraft as cover, saying that it was a "deliberate provocation." But later that day, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed away from the accusation, saying that the incident "looks like a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli jet didn't shoot down our plane."

Russia had also vowed a "retaliatory response" earlier that day, but Putin defused the situation by saying that the "retaliatory measures will be directed above all to boosting the security of military men and installations in Syria. These will be measures everyone will see."

Putin 'not interested' in deteriorating ties with Israel

Margarete Klein, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW that Putin defused the situation because he "wants to uphold Russia's unique position of being on speaking terms with nearly all political actors in the region – with Turkey and the Kurds, with Israel and Iran." She said that Putin is not interested in deteriorating relations with Israel, given that the two countries share a common interest of containing Iranian influence in the region.

Ammunition being prepared to be loaded onto a Russian war plane.
Russia intervened on behalf of the Syrian government in 2015, launching airstrikes against the Syrian opposition. Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/V. Savitsky

Russia sees Iran as a threat to its influence in the region, although both Russia and Iran support the Syrian government under President Bashar Assad. "Putin is trying to uphold military coordination between Russia and Iran on the ground in Syria while also looking for ways to constrain Iran's growing influence," Klein said. "That's the reason why Russia so far has not criticized or obstructed extended Israeli airstrikes against pro-Iranian targets in Israel."

Read more: What foreign powers want from the Syrian war  

Israel 'expresses regret' over loss of Russian lives

On the Israeli side, Ronen Manelis, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said that Israel "expresses its regret" with regard to the Russian lives lost. He said that "Israel holds the Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident," along with Iran and Hezbollah, two backers of the Assad government.

Yet, the question is how far the Israelis will go in striking Syria to destroy Iranian-related military targets, as there is a risk that Israel could wind up hitting a Russian military outpost instead. According to Yossi Mekelberg, an Israel expert and professor at Regents University in the UK, this would cross a red line in Russia's view. "If Russian soldiers were hit by the Israelis, Moscow wouldn't tolerate it," he told DW. "In spite of Russia and Israel having a common interest in containing Iran, the Russians would not accept it at the expense of the well-being and lives of their soldiers." Earlier this month, the Israelis admitted to having conducted 200 airstrikes on Syria over the last 18 months.

One way the Russians could respond is by giving the Syrians more sophisticated air defense systems. But this would be ironic, said Mekelberg, as Israel doesn't want neighboring Syria to have more advanced missile capabilities. "This would make Israel uncomfortable and the result of this could be escalation, which Russia is not interested in," he said.

Read more: Demilitarized zone in Syria's Idlib: What comes next?

Mekelberg said that Israel and Russia will have to move on from the incident and try their best not to have it repeated. "Mistakes can happen. I think the two countries will learn the lessons from this and try to avoid it. The Russian plane was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it paid the price."

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