In the quarter century that has elapsed since the end of the Cold War, Israel has in many ways gained an independence and freedom of action that it did not enjoy during its earlier history. Aside from being the unparalleled military power in the Middle East, Israel and its Arab neighbors are no longer proxies in the U.S.-Soviet Union fight, which has given Israel opportunities to build new diplomatic relationships while freeing it from the constant threat of war along its borders.
Yet this weekend’s brief skirmish with Iran in Syria demonstrates that shaking off the burdens imposed by the international system can prove illusory. Israel is still stuck between the United States and Russia, and the priorities of both powers have combined to leave Israel with an unwinnable situation in Syria that is not of its own making.
Israel’s initial reaction to the Syrian civil war was hesitation. Israeli officials were divided between those who viewed Bashar al-Assad as the greater long term threat and those who viewed ISIS as the greater long term threat. As a result, Israel’s official policy was to remain agnostic and stay out of the wider Syrian fray, absent spillover across Israel’s northern border.
But as Russia and Iran effectively took over Syria in an effort to prop up Assad and give themselves a permanent foothold in the country, Israel’s calculation changed. Israel cannot abide Iran setting up military bases in Syria, lengthening the front that already exists with Hizballah – an Iranian proxy – in Lebanon. Israel has conducted hundreds of sorties across Syria in recent years to disrupt various Iranian activities, from supplying advanced weapons to Hizballah to building missile factories. But this is where Israeli ambitions are banging against the wall of external restrictions.
Russia’s interests in Syria are not identical to Iran’s. But they are closer to Iran’s than they are to Israel’s. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken seven trips to Moscow in the past few years to speak with Vladimir Putin about Syria and to set up deconfliction mechanisms that allow Israel to operate over Syrian skies without getting into a firefight with Russian planes in the same space.
The limits to this, however, are obvious. Israel is not only attacking military sites and convoys operated by Russia’s ally Iran, but in some instances attacking locations dangerously close to where Russian troops are based.
Israel has only been able to conduct military strikes in Syria to the extent that it has with Russia’s tacit assent. But the latest incident with the downing of the Iranian drone and the subsequent downing of the Israeli F-16I is sorely testing the boundaries of Russian acquiescence.
Israel’s destruction of half of Syria’s air defense capabilities in retaliation for the Syrian missile that struck the Israeli jet imperils Russia’s core objective in Syria, which is keeping the regime in power. Israel was reportedly contemplating an even more severe and extensive strike against Syrian military positions, but was warned against – and ultimately prevented from – doing so by Putin himself, and it cannot escape notice that the statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry placed the blame for Saturday’s fighting solely on Israel without making mention of Iran and its drone at all.
On the other side is the U.S., which could potentially strengthen Israel’s hand against Iran in Syria, but has instead left Israel to fend for itself across successive administrations. The Obama administration was singularly focused on the Iran nuclear agreement and siloed other issues from its negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. But setting the Iran deal aside, President Obama was also not interested in getting the U.S. militarily involved in Syria in any real way, which meant not doing much to counter Iran’s growing entrenchment in southern Syria across from Israel’s border. This allowed Russian enabling of Iran to go completely unchallenged, and while the Israeli defense and security establishments were slow to recognize what was taking place, when they awoke to the problem they were already in a bind without strong American backing for their priorities.
The Trump administration has been no better when it comes to Israeli interests in Syria. While President Trump has taken a harsher rhetorical stance against Iran and was willing to directly confront Assad with a barrage of cruise missiles early in his presidency, his main focus in Syria has been rolling back ISIS territorial gains.
Like Obama, Trump has also not been interested in preventing an Iranian presence in Syria, and his general reluctance to confront or challenge Russia on foreign policy issues means that Netanyahu is again left to his own devices in pleading with Putin to give Israel room to push back on Iran. That Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is right now on a Middle East trip that includes five countries but not Israel while Trump is tweeting about the need to stop spending money in the region but to instead invest it at home tells you not only that the wider Middle East is not a priority, but that Israel’s Syrian dilemma is not one either.
Israel is stuck between a Russia whose priorities are not Israel’s, and a U.S. that is all too willing to cede the region to anyone else who is willing to spend the blood and treasure.
Netanyahu deserves an enormous amount of credit for doing anything he can to improve Israel’s situation. He has spent time making his case to Putin and carving out as much space as possible for Israel to attack Iranian targets in Syria that threaten Israel, and he has also done nothing to fall afoul of Trump, going so far as to back up Trump policies that do not relate to Israel at all, such as building a wall along the Mexican border.
But there is only so much that Netanyahu can do when Putin is not going to sacrifice Russian priorities that erode Israel’s security and Trump is simply uninterested. It all combines to leave Israel vulnerable, and increase the chances that the first ever direct military clash between Israel and Iran that took place on Saturday is a canary in the coal mine rather than an aberration.
Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. He is on twitter at @mkoplow.