Russia Can’t Solve Israel’s Security Dilemma
Israel lost its first aircraft in combat since the early 1980s last month. Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16I, leaving the airmen inside only “a few seconds” to escape the wreckage. The pilot has now recovered, but the incident – prompted by an Iranian drone dispatched into Israeli airspace from Syrian territory-- almost spiraled out of control. Israeli generals reportedly weighed a large-scale offensive in Syria. Israel was on the brink of war, reportedly until Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Netanyahu government to stand down. If true, this means that Russia has the ability limit Israeli freedom of action.
At a minimum, without strong American leadership to deal with the Iranian threat in Syria, Israel must stomach the presence of Russia as a major power. Indeed, Russia offers little help in solving the Israeli security dilemma. After all, Russia’s involvement in Syria enabled the Iranian expansion that presently undermines Israel’s security.
The threat on Israel’s northern border is unprecedented. Under the guise of fighting the Islamic State, Iran has aggressively increased its presence and influence in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic Republic controls a constellation of bases inside Syria, stretching from the northern border with Turkey to the Golan Heights in the south. Iran’s disposition in Syria enhances the damage it can inflict on Israel. In 2006, Israel fared poorly against a dispersed Hezbollah rocket threat arrayed across Lebanon; this threat is compounded by the strategic depth Syria now affords the Islamic Republic.
Israel is preparing itself for conflict. In the days following the F-16 crash, Israel reportedly repositioned missile defense batteries on its northern border. In September, Israel conducted its largest military exercise in two decades: a simulation of a Hezbollah offensive against Israel’s northern border. Next month, American troops will join their Israeli counterparts for an extensive aerial defense drill. Israel has also steadily enhanced its military with advanced stealth technology, from the American-made F-35 to the Trophy active protection system.
But none of this is enough to address the challenges posed by Russia. As Russia deploys advanced surface-to-air missile systems and stealth aircraft into the Syrian theater, Israel must prepare for an unlikely but dangerous scenario in which it is denied Syrian airspace. American pilots are already dealing with this threat in their operations in the Syrian theater.
Until now, Israel has managed the Russian challenge admirably. Netanyahu established a secure line between the two countries, and he has visited Russia on numerous occasions. Although Israel was excluded from negotiations that made Russia responsible for enforcing the so-called “de-escalation zone” on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, Israel has continued to operate there as it deems necessary. And continued operations are likely to be needed. Russia has only a marginal interest in limiting Iranian expansion along the Golan, as evidenced by multiple violations and Iranian abuses under Russia’s watch.
Israel understands that the U.S. role in the Middle East has contracted. Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s deputy minister for public diplomacy and a former ambassador to Washington, said that the United States is “not in the game” in Syria. Indeed, it was American unwillingness to counter Russian expansion in Syria in 2015 that first prompted the Israeli decision to establish a deconfliction mechanism with Putin. Thus, the Israelis have long known what CENTCOM Commander General Votel testified to this week: “Diplomatically and militarily, Moscow plays both arsonist and firefighter [in Syria].”
The best hope for preventing the next war between Israel and Hezbollah is for the United States to signal clearly to Russia that it will not allow Syria to become a launch pad for aggression against Israel. The United States should also reassure regional allies through bilateral military exercises, like the upcoming Juniper Cobra drill, which are a valuable means to enhance interoperability and experience firsthand the threat Israel faces. Furthermore, the United States should make every effort to include Israel in negotiations that will have a direct impact on Israeli security, such as talks regarding the de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria. The Trump administration has laid out a bold strategy to push back Iran, but it must be applied in the Syrian theater. American cannot cede its leadership role to Russia, particularly while Moscow continues its partnership with Iran.
Alexandra Gutowski is a senior military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.