The Syrian conflict is nothing if not complicated. The exact dynamics on the battlefield have shifted frequently in the five years since it began; so too has the role of international powers. While western powers have backed an array of different rebel groups, Russia and Iran have been unflinching in their support for the Assad regime. Israel, terrified of contagion, has carried out airstrikes against shipments of arms that it says go from Iran, to Syria, and then sometimes to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin met in Moscow, the first meeting between the two leaders since November 2013. They agreed to coordinate their military actions in Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire. Israel is concerned about the Russian weapons going to Assad. These include warplanes and anti-aircraft systems. Israel is concerned about these weapons ending up in the hands of Hezbollah, which has aimed thousands of missiles at Israel. Netanyahu also wants to avoid a situation where Israel accidentally bombs a Russians shipment while it is trying to prevent the handover of arms to Hezbollah.
US Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that the White House is “disturbed” by the growing Russian military presence in Syria; reportedly troops, artillery, and aircraft have been sent to Syria, raising fears that Russia plans to fight alongside the Syrian army. For its part, Russia is urging the US to step up its anti-Daesh campaign by coordinating with the Assad regime – which, officially, western powers still want to see ousted. While the major international powers wrestle with these complicated shifting alliances, Israel has remained preoccupied with the immediate threat to its borders, with the strengthening of arch-foe Iran, and with arms falling into the hands of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia which fought Israel to a standstill in the 2006 Lebanon war.
After the talks in Moscow, Netanyahu told journalists that an agreement had been reached to “avoid misunderstandings”. He did not elaborate, and the Kremlin did not immediately comment, although speaking on Russian TV earlier in the day, Putin disputed Netanyahu’s claim that Israel was in the firing line: “We know and understand that the Syrian army and Syria in general is in such a state that it isn’t up to opening a second front – it is trying to maintain its own statehood.”
On the surface, Netanyahu has made a sensible move in acting to de-escalate potential tensions with Russia. However, some commentators have argued that he has effectively agreed to weaken Israel’s hand in Syria; until now the Israeli army has freely struck targets in Syria. Of course, with so many different international powers taking action in Syria, the relevant actors are keen to avoid unnecessary clashes. Russia has stepped up its involvement, while western powers are also preparing to increase their airstrikes against Daesh. The US, currently leading this air campaign in Iraq and Syria, has held similar de-escalation talks with Moscow. It was recently reported that US-Israeli coordination allows the US-led coalition to share classified technologies for identifying Russian aircraft flying over Syria. Israel, therefore, is not alone in seeking to avoid an escalation of tensions with the Kremlin.
Clearly, the US, Israel, and Russia all need to know roughly what the other is doing in Syria if a damaging incident is to be avoided. However, some analysts have suggested that in these latest talks with Moscow, Israel has essentially agreed to reduce its activities in Syria. Netanyahu said that Israel would continue to act to block weapons transfers from Syria to Lebanon and against the establishment of an Iranian-backed military front on the Golan Heights. But it is not clear how this could be maintained in all scenarios. Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University, relayed some of these concerns to Reuters: “It complicates reality. It potentially limits Israel’s freedom of action. The fascinating question is whether it will constrain Israel or not. Israel has been looking at Lebanon and Syria as areas where it could fly freely.”
As is frequently the case in Israeli politics, part of the issue comes back to Iran. Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, outlined some of these anxieties in an article for the Israeli website Ynet. “The expanding dialogue between the US and Russia requires Israel not to be portrayed as a neutral player between the battling world powers in the Middle East,” he wrote. “When it comes to Syria, it will be important that the US takes care of Israel, just like Russia is taking care of Iran.”
In Israel, huge importance was placed on the talks, with Netanyahu taking the unusual step of taking top army officials with him. Whether the results make a major difference to the complicated balance of competing international actions in Syria still remains to be seen.