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Are Russia and Israel on a collision course in Syria?

If it’s true the Russians have intercepted Israeli missiles targeting Iran-backed militias, Washington may have to step in.

Recent statements by a Russian admiral and an anonymous Russian source have prompted speculation about whether Russia is changing its approach regarding Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. If such a shift is coming, it could pose problems for the United States, as the situation between Israel and Russia, while not unfriendly, is fragile and complicated.

On July 19, Israel launched an attack on Hezbollah and Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria. Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit, deputy chief of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Parties in Syria claimed that Russian missile defense systems brought down seven of eight Israeli missiles launched at sites near Aleppo. A few days later, Kulit claimed Israel launched another four missiles near Homs, all of which he said were intercepted.

Israel did not comment on the attack, but made sure that images of significant damage to a Syrian site were widely circulated on social media.

Observers questioned the specifics of Kulit’s claims, casting a good deal of doubt on their veracity. Around the same time, the London-based Arabic news outlet, Asharq Al-Aswat, reported that an anonymous Russian source said that, in the wake of U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow had gotten the message that Washington was not pleased with Israel’s escalated activity in Syria.

But there has been no indication that the United States is concerned about Israel’s military activities in Syria, nor that such a spectacular success against Israeli missiles was accomplished. Either of these would be game-changers, and it’s difficult to believe that there would be no chatter about them in the United States and Israel if either were true. But if the claims are exaggerated, what is the purpose of such statements by Russia?

Clearly, Kulit was not speaking out of turn, as there have been no reports of his being disciplined or reprimanded for his statements. Russian leaders have not publicly rebuked or supported Kulit’s statements, which reinforces the idea that these claims are being put out there for strategic purposes.

They take place at a time of major change. Joe Biden has replaced Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu has been supplanted by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. In both cases, this means a shift for Putin from interlocutors who relied heavily on their personal relationship with him and operated with a very self-centered style of diplomacy, to newcomers he is less familiar with and represent national interests beyond their own.

Putin likely wants to test the resolve of the relatively inexperienced Israeli leaders and wants to get a clear picture of how Biden, with his less conciliatory approach to Moscow compared to Trump, will handle the delicate balance that has been struck in Syria.

That balance is based in an agreement that the Trump administration reached with Russia in 2017, and which Israel was greatly displeased by. It allowed Iranian-backed militias, including Hezbollah, to continue to operate in a safe zone created in southern Syria. The accompanying ceasefire in that zone was meant to facilitate both U.S. and Russian efforts to combat ISIS in the region, but Israel was much more concerned about the militias.

Israeli complaints fell on deaf ears, but the Trump administration made it clear that Israel was free to pursue its objectives. A line of communication was opened between Israel and Russia, which Israel used to notify Moscow of impending attacks, in the hope of avoiding Russian casualties and upsetting the delicate balance.

Although there have been several incidents over the years that threatened to alter the status quo, diplomacy between Israel and Russia managed to defuse tensions when they arose. But now, there have been reports that the communication between Israel and Russia has stopped.

Netanyahu, ever on the lookout for ways to discredit and undermine the new Israeli government, seemed to support this idea when his Likud party stated that, “We maintained freedom of action in Syria thanks to Netanyahu’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. If these reports are accurate, this failed government has lost another vital strategic asset that Israel enjoyed under the Netanyahu government.”

Russia has never been happy about Israel’s frequent attacks in Syria, as its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, affirmed in January. “If Israel is really forced to respond to threats to Israeli security coming from the Syrian territory,” he said, “we have told our Israeli colleagues many times: if you see such threats, please give us the information.” Israel has made it clear over the years that this is unacceptable to them.

There may also be more than just feeling out the new Israeli and U.S. governments at work here. With Lebanon mired in economic collapse and political chaos, Hezbollah’s position there has become more volatile and controversial, even while its military capabilities have grown and have remained a source of agitation for Israel. As the situation in Lebanon worsens, the possibility of clashes with Israel increase, particularly as Hezbollah has faced increased scrutiny and negative attention domestically.

The possibility of the United States finding a way to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, and defusing some of the tensions in the Gulf, also represents a potential shift for Russia to manage. In early July, Russia, Iran, and Turkey reaffirmed their stated desire to see a unified and independent Syria reformed. This is where Russia is hoping to flex its diplomatic muscles on the international stage, but aside from declarations like this one, and some cooperation between Russia and Turkey in maintaining each country’s sphere of influence in Syria, the process these countries undertook four years ago has shown little potential to resolve the Syrian conflict.  

With these shifting circumstances, Russia may be looking for a way forward. Arab states, most prominently the UAE, are carefully exploring ways to start bringing Syria back into the fold. Russia very much wants to see that happen, as it would then have a more direct influence in the region, through Damascus. But it’s a difficult process; Arab states do not want to shoulder the burden of rebuilding Syria, something Russia as well cannot afford, and the country remains conflicted and divided.

By rebuking Israel, Moscow has reaffirmed its support for and value to the tattered Assad regime. But the regional concerns are what make the question of whether Russia is really intending to take a stronger stance against Israeli actions in Syria so important.

The Biden administration will have to think carefully about how to move forward if Russia decides to defend Syrian airspace more forcefully. It would need to find a way to convince Israel to respect Syrian airspace while ensuring that Israel remains secure from attack, something the United States would need to cooperate with Moscow to achieve.

Washington has so far remained quiet. If the recent statements were mere posturing by Russia, it can comfortably continue to do so. If not, it will have to get involved in brokering a deal, lest Israeli tensions with Russia escalate and create a new powder keg in a region that already has too many.

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