The geopolitics of the Middle East has shifted once again, since Joe Biden took office as US President in January – which has meant that the bigger players have had to recalibrate their relationships and objectives.
In Syria, the role of Russia was always an ambiguous one, as in recent times, many analysts speculated that Putin’s relationship with Assad had soured due to the Syrian leader’s reluctance to take a softer line on opposition groups and to encourage Iran to remove its military from the country. The idea on the Russian side was simply that this would attract foreign investment and restructuring aid, placing Russia in a perfect position to capitalize on its investment in the country.
Yet now the stakes are higher with Biden in office and there are indications that Putin may be cozying up to Assad once again due to a new landscape where the US will want to flex its muscles in the region – including even in Syria itself. This became apparent on February 25 when the US launched airstrikes in Syria, targeting facilities used by Iranian-backed militia groups near the Iraqi border. The Pentagon stated the strike was in response to a rocket attack on US targets in Iraq in early February.
Israeli airstrikes in Syria have always been a headache for the Russian leader, as they put into question Russia’s role there and its strategic relationship with the Assad regime.
Nevertheless, Israeli airstrikes in Syria have always been a headache for the Russian leader, as they put into question Russia’s role there and its strategic relationship with the Assad regime. And Israel knows this only too well. But Netanyahu also uses the strikes to hit Hezbollah and Iran, to glean political capital back home, and now, to also remind Biden that the Israeli Prime Minister still has some leverage in how Iran is handled by the new US administration.
But that strategy might well be put to the ultimate test soon, where Netanyahu’s free pass in Syria expires and the world will watch whether he has the courage to wage a battle with Russia itself.
Since Russia entered the Syria conflict in 2015 and changed the course of history there by keeping Assad in power, it has always tolerated Israeli airstrikes against the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and Iran.
This tumultuous arrangement was pushed to its limits in September 2018 when a Russian surveillance plane was shot down by friendly fire from the ground by Assad air defenses. The incident was orchestrated by two Israeli jets which had “boxed” the huge plane in, so as to trick the ground forces into thinking they were firing at the Israeli jets.
Many analysts at the time warned that “all bets were off” with the arrangement at that point and that Israel was skating on thin ice with its airstrikes. The warning was there but it would appear that Russia’s patience was not exhausted, and Israel continued, albeit more carefully, with its tactical strikes.
The worry was that if Russia retaliated itself when its ally Assad was being hit, then a World War III scenario could emerge over Syria. If Russia used its own S-300 to down an Israeli jet, the consequences of this could be wide scale and at the very least be the starter’s pistol of a new proxy war within Syria, which Biden would almost certainly not shy away from.
Now that worry is very much real as Russia has recently announced its intentions to do just that, openly stating that it will shoot down Israeli jets carrying out strikes in Syria – a policy which no doubt follows Biden’s new crackdown on Russia and a slew of fresh sanctions.
In late February, the Russian President’s Special Envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, unveiled a report in which he condemned Israel for not respecting agreements reached between Israel and Russia on the de-escalation of the situation in Syria, following the Russian plane “accident” in 2018.
If Israel does not abandon its aggressions against Syria soon, Russia will be ready to attack Israeli planes regardless of where those aircrafts may be.
And his message to Netanyahu was clear. Lavrentiev noted that Moscow’s “patience has completely dried up,” and that if Israel does not abandon its aggressions against Syria soon, Russia will be ready to attack Israeli planes regardless of where those aircrafts may be – Syria, Lebanon, or across the Mediterranean.
It’s expected that Russia, for the first time, will launch its own jets when Israel performs such sorties, making it much harder for the latter to carry out its strikes. But if this is not enough to temper Israel’s zeal, then Russia will use its own surface-to-air missiles, putting to bed once and for all the myth that Putin is afraid of showcasing the S-300s in fear that they may not live up to their reputation.
Of course, this places Netanyahu – ahead of elections – in the media spotlight and as the key figure at any negotiations with Iran that the Biden camp will endeavor to secure.
The Israeli Prime Minister will no doubt relish the opportunity to be in such a position as a broker and the West’s main player to what could effectively be a war between the West and Russia, but it’s less clear whether this will play into his hands and his shaky coalition when Israelis head to the polls in March.
What is clearer, is that there is undoubtedly a “new tension” in the Syrian conflict now since Biden took office—as the new US president, Putin, and the respective leaders of Israel, Iran, and Turkey all now pour over the map of the country, mull new battle plans, and study their allegiances.
But given the strength of Russia and the sheer terror of Hezbollah’s missile capability alone within Israel, if provoked, one would hope that Netanyahu would be careful what he wishes for.