Russia’s Return to the Middle East, and What It Means for Israel

October 13, 2016 | Yaakov Amidror
About the author: Yaakov Amidror is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and a Distinguish Fellow of JINSA’s  Gemunder Strategic Center, Washington DC. He served as national security advisor to the prime minister of Israel and the head of the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.

Above all, writes Yaakov Amidror, Moscow’s intervention in Syria, along with its cultivation of closer diplomatic ties with Cairo and Tehran, is aimed at restoring Russian influence to what it was at the height of the cold war, and ultimately at supplanting the U.S. as the dominant force in the region. While Israel continues to make the best of a bad situation, the horizon is not bright:

Israel . . . has some major disagreements with Russia, especially after the sale of sophisticated weapons to Iran and Syria and the transfer of many weapons systems to Hizballah. [However], Russia’s willingness to tolerate Israel Air Force operations over Syria reflects a certain understanding of Jerusalem’s position. In a way the tacit permission it grants to Israeli operations to stop the arms transfers legitimizes those operations.

Overall, in its relationship with Russia, Israel is realistic. It tries to understand what can be achieved (for example, a lengthy delay in supplying Iran with the S-300 surface-to-air missile system) and what cannot be achieved (for example, the outright cancellation of the sale of the S-300 missile system).

Israel understands that it cannot stop cooperation among Iran, Hizballah, and Syria in the war against the [anti-Assad] rebels. Israel has been able, however, to establish a conflict-prevention mechanism to prevent any incidents that could occur if Israel and Russia were to operate in the same area without reliable communication.

This mechanism is not an alliance, or even a coordination agreement. It is a technical arrangement with the goal of preventing incidents. It is limited to the narrow field of preventing error in an area where both sides are active, each for its own purposes. The diplomatic significance of the conflict-prevention mechanism should not be overstated. Nor should Israel rely on the hope that the Russians will limit Hizballah’s or Iran’s operations against Israel or do anything to mitigate them.

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