Following a recent increase in the Russian presence in Syria, Israeli officials have been reassessing how to handle “fall-out” issues arising from the ongoing Syrian civil war. Israel has until now assumed a very standoffish approach to the Syrian conflict, sporadically retaliating to attacks by targeting weapons depots and military convoys in Syria that it deemed threatening. However, with an increase of Russian military support in Syria backing President Bashar al-Assad, Israeli officials may need to change tactics.
Following US as well as regional reports which indicate that Russia’s diplomatic and logistical support for President Assad’s forces is turning into major military backing, Israel has begun putting plans in place to avoid an accidental confrontation with Moscow.
When asked by a reporter at the Interdisciplinary Center conference in Herzliya if Russian intervention in Syria might necessitate new Israeli rules of engagement, Ram Ben-Barak, director-general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, said that “there could certainly be ramifications for us.”
During the conference, experts described Russian policy in Syria as both an effort to shore up Assad and to mobilize Russian forces together with other world powers in an effort to suppress Islamic State insurgents.
Amos Gilad, senior adviser to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, said in a speech, “We have been informed that the Russians are entering into active intervention, the Americans are attacking … The West and now, in fact, the Russians and the whole world are trying to unite against [the Islamic State].”
Gilad told Reuters reporters in separate remarks that it is still too early to know how extensive Moscow’s military involvement in Syria will be and whether or not their involvement might clip Israel’s wings operationally.
Reporters questioned Gilad on whether or not Israel is communicating with Russia in a bid to head off any unintended confrontations between their forces. He responded by saying, that; “There are ways. They are not our enemies today.”
In Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she had no information about any communication between Israel and Russia regarding this matter.
Amos Yadlin, the Director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, predicted that Israel and Russia were unlikely to find themselves pitted against each other in Syria, as the two countries have different areas of interest. Yadlin, an Israeli air force ex-general and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former military intelligence chief, said, “I don’t think there is any reason for the sides to collide, as we are not fighting the same enemy. I assume that we will be very careful, and so will they. My assumption is that we don’t attack any site on the ground in Syria unless we have an excellent picture of who is or isn’t there.”
Russian forces would likely avoid the Golan, Israel’s northern front, as it is not their area of interest, and Israel would continue to thoroughly analyze any situation before carrying out airstrikes in order to ascertain that no Russian forces would be harmed.