The dispute between Russia and Israel over the downing of a Russian aircraft over Syria has revealed two important aspects of their relationship. One is related to the depth of coordination between them, and the other is the emergence of a discrepancy between the Kremlin and the Russian military establishment regarding the extent of this coordination.
As far as the first is concerned, the incident confirmed the total understanding that Israel is free to move against Iran's military presence in Syria, or anyone associated with Iran, provided that Russia is informed of the location and time of the attack in advance to prevent unintentional clashes. Russia objected to what Israel did on 17 September, claiming it was a breach of this understanding and that Israel misled it regarding the location and only gave a minute's notice. This meant that the Russians had no time to get the Il-20 aircraft out of the line of fire.
As for the second aspect, the incident was one of the few occasions when a difference of opinion was revealed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals regarding the management of the Syrian issue. Initially, Putin tried to contain the incident and prevent significant repercussions due to his need to continue using Israel as a means to put pressure on the Iranian military presence in Syria, while also cooperating with Tel Aviv in order to undo the complexities in his relationship with Washington; this was evidenced by the agreement to "liquidate" the de-escalation zones in southern Syria.
As for the Russian generals, they have been harsh in dealing with the incident; losing a plane in this way was another blow to Moscow's military establishment, which has already lost face in Syria. Remember Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015? And the Deir Ez-Zor attack in February this year when US troops killed hundreds of Russian militants? Now Moscow's reputation has been hit by the Israelis, who are apparently treating the incident and the lives of the soldiers on board the aircraft at the time very lightly.
So far, the generals' approach seems to have won, as a few days after the incident containment looked to be the main position. The Russian military presented a new approach that may change the rules of engagement in Syria. Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu announced the decision to supply the Syrian regime with an updated version of the S-300 missile; it was a deal agreed in 2013 but it was not implemented for Israel's sake. Shoygu went as far as announcing the Russian army's launch of electromagnetic jamming systems in the areas adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea in order to prevent radar, communications satellites and aircraft from working during any future attack on Syria.
If Russia decides to go ahead with this policy, it would mean the fall of the 2015 understanding between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin, opening the door to the prospect of a major escalation. If Israel insists on preventing Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria, it means that it will inevitably clash with the new Russian missile systems. It is possible that the Israel Defence Forces will try to destroy them; during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon the elimination of the SAM batteries deployed by Syria a year earlier was one of the IDF's most important goals.
However, this would be a major embarrassment for the Russians and they will have to respond, like they did when they shot down an Israeli aircraft on 10 February. This entailed the involvement of the Americans in light of their major escalation with Iran and their rejection of Russia's cover for its presence in Syria by means of the LS300 systems. There is the potential for a clash, but it is slight, because Putin knows that he is risking all of his Syrian "achievements". The Russian President is more likely to manoeuvre, as he is trying to force Israel to accept new conditions for entering Syria, as he did with Turkey after the 2015 incident. The chance of success with this is limited, though, as Turkey did not have any of the US backing that Israel has. In any case, the situation looks dangerous given the presence of five armies on the ground in Syria. As for us Syrians, we are busy watching how committed they all are to the accepted rules of engagement.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 26 September 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.