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A Russia-Israel confrontation in Syria

A new Russian aerospace incident in Syrian skies has caused a complicated crisis, but this time, it is with Israel.

Almost two years ago, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet on the Syrian-Turkish border causing a political crisis between the two countries that almost developed into a military confrontation.

The crisis at the time ended with Erdogan's apology to Moscow, and the two countries turned a new page in their relations, reaching an advanced level, especially in terms of cooperation to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Yesterday's incident was of more serious proportions, as a Russian military plane carrying 15 passengers, on its way to the Khmeimim Air Base, was hit with missiles that led to its fall and the death all those on board. The Russian army announced that it had been hit by the Syrian air defence forces during its response to Israeli attacks on the city of Latakia. However, the Russian army's statement also said that responsibility lay with Israel because the presence of its fighters in Syrian skies put the Russian plane in the Syrian air defence's line of fire.

The statement explicitly referred to Russia's right to respond in time. The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli ambassador to Moscow to express its anger and condemnation of the incident.

READ: Syria mistakenly downs Russian plane, Moscow blames Israeli 'provocations'

Israel has consistently hit Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria without a direct response from the Russian forces stationed there. Israel, in turn, was very keen not to attack Russian military bases, and managed to reach an agreement on the rules of engagement in Syria to avoid direct confrontation between the two sides.

However, such an incident has violated the rules. Will it change the whole game in Syria?

Israel is sticking to its right to attack what it says are Iranian military targets in Syria. This did not provoke a military reaction from Russia, despite its continued expression of discontent with Israel's behaviour.

The Iron Dome, Israeli military systems which intercept missiles - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The Iron Dome, Israeli military systems which intercept missiles – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

This incident may be an opportunity for Russia to restrict Israel's movement in the Syrian airspace and spare its allied forces, Syrian forces, and even Iranians, further losses.

It is certain that the Netanyahu government will move immediately to contain the crisis with Moscow, and will try to begin to shirk responsibility and blame the Syrian side. However, it will eventually seek to please the Russians even this requires Israel to take responsibility for the "unintended mistake" so as not to enter into a crisis with Russia that would hinder its military activity in Syria.

Moscow will not pass up the opportunity to score against Israel in the Syrian field, but it may not go too far in the escalation against it, as it did with Turkey. Russian-Israeli relations are deep and complex and linked to a network of vital interests.

In other words, the Russian plane incident will not change the rules of the game radically in Syria, but it will force the players to manage the competition and influence in a way that prevents a major military clash.


In the short term, Israel may stop launching air strikes on Syria to absorb Russia's anger, but it will not commit itself to this for long before resuming its open confrontation against all possibilities with Iran.

In any case, what happened recently in the skies of Syria is a reminder of the need for a major settlement to rid Syria of the fire of rivalling forces.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 19 September 2018

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleEurope & RussiaIranIsraelMiddle EastOpinionRussiaSyriaTurkey
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