Last week, Israeli jets struck Iranian arms warehouses in northwestern Syria. The Syrian military responded—after the jets were already out of range—with antiaircraft missiles, one of which brought down a Russian surveillance plane, killing fifteen crew members. After initially blaming Israel for the fiasco, Moscow struck a more conciliatory tone, but only temporarily. It has now pledged to provide the Syrian army with its S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which could make it more difficult for the IDF to operate over Syria’s skies. And there has also been some all-too-familiar rhetoric on the part of Russian politicians and media outlets, as Ariel Bolstein notes:
The false accusation against Israel has awakened the ghosts of anti-Semitism that always existed in Russian society and which the ruling powers have made an effort to hide in recent decades. Russian television stations are permitting themselves to make harsh statements about Israel and a number of speakers, including senior delegates in the Russian parliament, have demanded that military air bases in the Jewish state be bombed in retribution. Until last week’s incident, such remarks were effectively prohibited in public in Russia, because officials were certain that the person at the top—President Vladimir Putin—objected to them.
But the new situation in which a major government entity in the form of the Russian Defense Ministry talks about Israel in language reminiscent of the cold war has unleashed anti-Semitic language in Russia in general.
The Russians’ unwillingness to accept the facts, along with their desire to insist that Israel is responsible, demonstrate that they intend to use the incident to squeeze out the diplomatic maximum in Syria. They will try to limit Israel’s operational freedom, albeit without getting dragged into a direct conflict. The manufactured crisis over the shot-down plane will be used as an excuse to bestow advanced military capabilities on the Syrian regime, such as the S-300 missile system.
In a situation like this, it is important that Israel stand its ground and keep operating as it did before the incident: on the one hand maintaining close contact with Russia about diplomatic and military matters, especially at the highest levels, while on the other hand allowing the IDF to operate in Syria as needed. When Moscow realizes that Israel will not capitulate, the understandings that were in place before the incident will remain in effect.